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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Leadership Is a Conversation 04-19

Leadership Is a Conversation





Artwork: Adam Ekberg, Arrangement #1,2009, ink-jet print


The command-and-control approach to management has in recent years become less and less viable. Globalization, new technologies, and changes in how companies create value and interact with customers have sharply reduced the efficacy of a purely directive, top-down model of leadership. What will take the place of that model?

 Part of the answer lies in how leaders manage communication within their organizations—that is, how they handle the flow of information to, from, and among their employees. Traditional corporate communication must give way to a process that is more dynamic and more sophisticated. Most important, that process must be conversational.
We arrived at that conclusion while conducting a recent research project that focused on the state of organizational communication in the 21st century. Over more than two years we interviewed professional communicators as well as top leaders at a variety of organizations—large and small, blue chip and start-up, for-profit and nonprofit, U.S. and international. 

To date we have spoken with nearly 150 people at more than 100 companies. Both implicitly and explicitly, participants in our research mentioned their efforts to “have a conversation” with their people or their ambition to “advance the conversation” within their companies. Building upon the insights and examples gleaned from this research, we have developed a model of leadership that we call “organizational conversation.”
Smart leaders today, we have found, engage with employees in a way that resembles an ordinary person-to-person conversation more than it does a series of commands from on high. Furthermore, they initiate practices and foster cultural norms that instill a conversational sensibility throughout their organizations. Chief among the benefits of this approach is that it allows a large or growing company to function like a small one. 

By talking with employees, rather than simply issuing orders, leaders can retain or recapture some of the qualities—operational flexibility, high levels of employee engagement, tight strategic alignment—that enable start-ups to outperform better-established rivals.
In developing our model, we have identified four elements of organizational conversation that reflect the essential attributes of interpersonal conversation: intimacy, interactivity, inclusion, and intentionality. Leaders who power their organizations through conversation-based practices need not (so to speak) dot all four of these i’s. However, as we’ve discovered in our research, these elements tend to reinforce one another. In the end, they coalesce to form a single integrated process.
Intimacy: Getting Close


Personal conversation flourishes to the degree that the participants stay close to each other, figuratively as well as literally. Organizational conversation, similarly, requires leaders to minimize the distances—institutional, attitudinal, and sometimes spatial—that typically separate them from their employees. 
Where conversational intimacy prevails, those with decision-making authority seek and earn the trust (and hence the careful attention) of those who work under that authority. They do so by cultivating the art of listening to people at all levels of the organization and by learning to speak with employees directly and authentically. 
Physical proximity between leaders and employees isn’t always feasible. Nor is it essential. What isessential is mental or emotional proximity. Conversationally adept leaders step down from their corporate perches and then step up to the challenge of communicating personally and transparently with their people.
This intimacy distinguishes organizational conversation from long-standard forms of corporate communication. It shifts the focus from a top-down distribution of information to a bottom-up exchange of ideas. It’s less corporate in tone and more casual. And it’s less about issuing and taking orders than about asking and answering questions.
Conversational intimacy can become manifest in various ways—among them gaining trust, listening well, and getting personal.
Gaining trust.Where there is no trust, there can be no intimacy. For all practical purposes, the reverse is true as well. No one will dive into a heartfelt exchange of views with someone who seems to have a hidden agenda or a hostile manner, and any discussion that does unfold between two people will be rewarding and substantive only to the extent that each person can take the other at face value.

But trust is hard to achieve. In organizations it has become especially difficult for employees to put trust in their leaders, who will earn it only if they are authentic and straightforward. That may mean addressing topics that feel off-limits, such as sensitive financial data.
Athenahealth, a medical-records technology provider, has gone as far as to treat every last one of its employees as an “insider” under the strict legal meaning of the term. Insiders are defined as employees entrusted with strategic and financial information that could materially affect the company’s business prospects and hence its stock price—a status typically accorded only to top-tier officers. 
Opening the books to such a degree was a risky move, discouraged by the company’s underwriters and frowned upon by the SEC. But Athenahealth’s leaders wanted employees to become insiders in more than just the regulatory sense; they wanted them to be thoroughly involved in the business.
Listening well.Leaders who take organizational conversation seriously know when to stop talking and start listening. Few behaviors enhance conversational intimacy as much as attending to what people say. True attentiveness signals respect for people of all ranks and roles, a sense of curiosity, and even a degree of humility.
Duke Energy’s president and CEO, James E. Rogers, instituted a series of what he called “listening sessions” when he was the CEO and chairman of Cinergy (which later merged with Duke). Meeting with groups of 90 to 100 managers in three-hour sessions, he invited participants to raise any pressing issues. Through these discussions he gleaned information that might otherwise have escaped his attention. 
At one session, for example, he heard from a group of supervisors about a problem related to uneven compensation. “You know how long it would have taken for that to bubble up in the organization?” he asks. Having heard directly from those affected by the problem, he could instruct his HR department to find a solution right away.
Getting personal.Rogers not only invited people to raise concerns about the company but also solicited feedback on his own performance. He asked employees at one session to grade him on a scale of A to F. The results, recorded anonymously, immediately appeared on a screen for all to see. The grades were generally good, but less than half of employees were willing to give him an A. He took the feedback seriously and began to conduct the exercise regularly. He also began asking open-ended questions about his performance. 
Somewhat ironically, he found that “internal communication” was the area in which the highest number of participants believed he had room for improvement. Even as Rogers sought to get close to employees by way of organizational conversation, a fifth of his people were urging him to get closer still. True listening involves taking the bad with the good, absorbing criticism even when it is direct and personal—and even when those delivering it work for you.
At Exelon, an energy provider headquartered in Chicago, a deeply personal form of organizational conversation emerged from a project aimed at bringing the company’s corporate values alive for its employees. Values statements typically do little to instill intimacy; they’re generally dismissed as just talk. So Exelon experimented in its communication about diversity, a core value: It used a series of short video clips—no fuss, no pretense, no high production values—of top leaders speaking unscripted, very personally, about what diversity meant to them. 
They talked about race, sexual orientation, and other issues that rarely go on the table in a corporation. Ian McLean, then an Exelon finance executive, spoke of growing up in Manchester, England, the son of a working-class family, and feeling the sting of class prejudice. Responding to a question about a time when he felt “different,” he described going to work in a bank where most of his colleagues had upper-class backgrounds: “My accent was different....I wasn’t included, I wasn’t invited, and I was made to think I wasn’t quite as smart as they were....I never want anyone else to feel that [way] around me.” Such unadorned stories make a strong impression on employees.
Interactivity: Promoting Dialogue


A personal conversation, by definition, involves an exchange of comments and questions between two or more people. The sound of one person talking is not, obviously, a conversation. The same applies to organizational conversation, in which leaders talk withemployees and not just tothem. This interactivity makes the conversation open and fluid rather than closed and directive. It entails shunning the simplicity of monologue and embracing the unpredictable vitality of dialogue. The pursuit of interactivity reinforces, and builds upon, intimacy: Efforts to close gaps between employees and their leaders will founder if employees don’t have both the tools and the institutional support they need to speak up and (where appropriate) talk back.

In part, a shift toward greater interactivity reflects a shift in the use of communication channels. For decades, technology made it difficult or impossible to support interaction within organizations of any appreciable size. The media that companies used to achieve scale and efficiency in their communications—print and broadcast, in particular—operated in one direction only. But new channels have disrupted that one-way structure. Social technology gives leaders and their employees the ability to invest an organizational setting with the style and spirit of personal conversation.
Yet interactivity isn’t just a matter of finding and deploying the right technology. Equally if not more important is the need to buttress social media with social thinking. Too often, an organization’s prevailing culture works against any attempt to transform corporate communication into a two-way affair. For many executives and managers, the temptation to treat every medium at their disposal as if it were a megaphone has proved hard to resist. In some companies, however, leaders have fostered a genuinely interactive culture—values, norms, and behaviors that create a welcoming space for dialogue.
To see how interactivity works, consider Cisco Systems. As it happens, Cisco makes and sells various products that fall under the social technology umbrella. In using them internally, its people have explored the benefits of enabling high-quality back-and-forth communication. One such product, TelePresence, simulates an in-person meeting by beaming video feeds between locations. Multiple large screens create a wraparound effect, and specially designed meeting tables (in an ideal configuration) mirror one another so that users feel as if they were seated at the same piece of furniture. 

In one sense this is a more robust version of a web-based video chat, with none of the delays or hiccups that typically mar online video. More important, it masters the critical issue of visual scale. When Cisco engineers studied remote interactions, they found that if the on-screen image of a person is less than 80% of his or her true size, those who see the image are less engaged in talking with that person. TelePresence participants appear life-size and can look one another in the eye.
TelePresence is a sophisticated technology tool, but what it enables is the recovery of immediate, spontaneous give-and-take. Randy Pond, Cisco’s executive vice president of operations, processes, and systems, thinks this type of interaction offers the benefit of the “whole” conversation—a concept he illustrated for us with an anecdote. 
Sitting at his desk for a video conference one day, he could see video feeds of several colleagues on his computer screen when he made a comment to the group and a participant “just put his head in his hands”—presumably in dismay, and presumably not considering that Pond could see him. “I said, ‘I can see you,’” Pond told us. “‘If you disagree, tell me.’” Pond was then able to engage with his skeptical colleague to get the “whole story.” A less interactive form of communication might have produced such information eventually—but far less efficiently.
At the crux of Cisco’s communication culture is its CEO, John Chambers, who holds various forums to keep in touch with employees. About every other month, for instance, he leads a “birthday chat,” open to any Cisco employee whose birthday falls in the relevant two-month period. Senior managers aren’t invited, lest their presence keep attendees from speaking openly. Chambers also records a video blog about once a month—a brief, improvisational message delivered by e-mail to all employees.
 The use of video allows him to speak to his people directly, informally, and without a script; it suggests immediacy and builds trust. And despite the inherently one-way nature of a video blog, Chambers and his team have made it interactive by inviting video messages as well as text comments from employees.
Inclusion: Expanding Employees’ Roles
At its best, personal conversation is an equal-opportunity endeavor. It enables participants to share ownership of the substance of their discussion. As a consequence, they can put their own ideas—and, indeed, their hearts and souls—into the conversational arena. Organizational conversation, by the same token, calls on employees to participate in generating the content that makes up a company’s story. Inclusive leaders, by counting employees among a company’s official or quasi-official communicators, turn those employees into full-fledged conversation partners. In the process, such leaders raise the level of emotional engagement that employees bring to company life in general.
Inclusion adds a critical dimension to the elements of intimacy and interactivity. Whereas intimacy involves the efforts of leaders to get closer to employees, inclusion focuses on the role that employees play in that process. It also extends the practice of interactivity by enabling employees to provide their own ideas—often on official company channels—rather than simply parrying the ideas that others present. It enables them to serve as frontline content providers.
In the standard corporate communication model, top executives and professional communicators monopolize the creation of content and keep a tight rein on what people write or say on official company channels. But when a spirit of inclusion takes hold, engaged employees can adopt important new roles, creating content themselves and acting as brand ambassadors, thought leaders, and storytellers.
Brand ambassadors.When employees feel passionate about their company’s products and services, they become living representatives of the brand. This can and does happen organically—lots of people love what they do for a living and will talk it up on their own time. But some companies actively promote that kind of behavior. Coca-Cola, for instance, has created a formal ambassadorship program, aimed at encouraging employees to promote the Coke image and product line in speech and in practice. 
The Coke intranet provides resources such as a tool that connects employees to company-sponsored volunteer activities. The centerpiece of the program is a list of nine ambassadorial behaviors, which include helping the company “win at the point of sale” (by taking it on themselves to tidy store displays in retail outlets, for example), relaying sales leads, and reporting instances in which a retailer has run out of a Coke product.