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Chapter 7: Engage Through Powerful Conversations: How To Use Conversations To Drive Culture, And Why Culture Delivers Goals

Even in turbulent economic times, organizations with high engagement levels outperform competitors and achieve results far better than the average. Their employees have more positive attitudes and more productive behaviours, and deliver better outcomes. All of these benefits are shaped by the conversations that leaders have with their teams. Here is a guide to more powerful conversations.

My client looked pleased and puzzled at the same time. He was the CEO of an environmental services business, and he had just returned from a road show that had taken him to his 15 offices around the world. I had asked him about what revelations had hit him during his travels around the UK, in Europe, the USA and Singapore. (We had a habit, in our coaching sessions, of finding ways for him to reflect on his business and draw out perspectives that would help him with content for his leadership communication.)

He said he had been struck by how absorbed and proud and energized some of his staff had seemed – but only in some of his offices. This both pleased and puzzled him because he recognized how positive the experience was with the energized staff, but wasn’t sure why it wasn’t the same in all of his offices.

I asked him what he put the pride and energy of some of his employees down to. He thought for a while, and replied that he didn’t know. I asked whether those who were more energized performed better. ‘Funny you should say that,’ he said. ‘Where the staff were most enthusiastic and searching and passionate, they were performing much better than the others.’

We agreed he would be more inquisitive about this when he did his next round of visits, two months later.

‘Well?’ I asked, at our next session.

‘I’m not sure,’ he mused. ‘The only thing I can see is that they seem to know much more about the company, what we’re trying to do, how we’re doing. They had more ideas and they were more challenging of me. They just seemed more engaged in the business somehow. I think their managers just talked with them more and involved them more in decision making than did the managers in the other offices.’

We decided to work with this insight and find ways to encourage managers everywhere to talk more with their staff about how to improve the business. We ensured this would happen by announcing a survey of staff, where we would be asking whether they had actually had conversations with their boss recently. This would force the managers out of their offices or else the survey would reveal their lack of contact with the front-line staff. Then we gave the managers themes we wanted discussed, with the task of feeding back to us what staff said in response. We would know if they had not done the job, because we would not get the feedback in the time set, which we could correlate with the staff survey.

Guess what? Within weeks we were getting positive signs of more engagement, more ideas, more actionable insights, and within a few months performance started to improve as well. And that was without developing the managers in terms of their ability to lead these team meetings in the right way. It was just about forcing the conversation. We did insist that the managers made decisions where they could, based on those discussions, and refer back up the line decisions that they felt were beyond their remit. Managers above them could then make the decisions that had been delegated upwards, or pass them up again. Often, we discovered that it was only a perception that they could not make decisions, rather than corporate rules that confined them. They also brought to light crunchy issues that did have to be resolved higher up the chain. Everything got faster.

This was a listening process, rather than a briefing process, and it had a remarkable effect.

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