Posted by: dstieglitz | December 26, 2012

Are Your Leadership Conversations Effective?

George Bernard Shaw said: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” You speak with bosses, peers, direct reports, customers, and other stakeholders every day, but do those conversations create alignment, inspire innovation, mobilize change, and accomplish goals? There are four types of leadership conversations: building relationships, developing others, making decisions, and taking action. Each of them should increase the power of the others in a virtuous cycle. Building relationships and developing others produce better decisions and more effective actions. Successful actions in turn strengthen relationships and the repeating cycle increases the power of the organization. An executive who is proficient in all four conversations is likely to produce superior results.

Conversations to Build Relationships.  Martin’s 360-feedback had declined. As second in command at a large office of a services firm, he was fast-tracked to become a partner. Martin wanted that position so he engaged an executive coach. Early in the first session, the coach asked Martin, “What is your job?” He responded by citing the services that his staff provided to clients. The coach prodded: “What else?” Martin described the regulatory filings his staff prepared and the issues they resolved. The coach said nothing and Martin blurted out, “Do you mean mentoring those ungrateful children who leave after we teach them everything?” Then Martin whispered, “Did I just say what I think I said?” Yes, he had. He was entirely focused on project results rather than on building relationships and developing people. That mindset did not align with his current position, let alone with the promotion that he sought.

     Leaders build relationships that attract and motivate followers. How well do you know the abilities and preferences of the people around you? How closely do their goals align with your organization’s goals? How regularly do you provide useful feedback to them? Or receive feedback from them? Would any of your people leave if they received an enticing job offer? People, and your relationships with them, count. If that understanding isn’t in your DNA, reconsider your role as a leader.

Leadership Conversations to Develop Others. Earthquakes and tsunamis that disrupt supply chains, renegade employees who do nsane things, and volcanic eruptions that interrupt travel plans confirm the importance of developing others. When you develop people, you prepare them for unexpected events and industry-wide and organization-specific changes. When you hold regular conversations about opportunities, progress, and issues, your people will grow rapidly – and so will you. Developing others produces people who are more capable of helping you to build productive relationships, make better decisions, and take more effective actions.

When you became a leader, you accepted responsibility for developing people – to have conversations that encourage them to consider new possibilities and stretch their effort. If you focus solely on today’s tasks and this quarter’s goals, you will limit your long-term success and possibly jeopardize the future of the organization. Furthermore, the lack of developmental conversations and stretch assignments could push your high potentials to seek growth elsewhere, leaving you with people who do only what you tell them. To win the battle for talent, you must provide the environment and the resources for people to satisfy their goals and expand the organization’s capability.

Leadership Conversations to Make Decisions. The IT division of a company held an offsite workshop to set milestones for rolling out new web capabilities. When Helmut, the division head, received status reports and feedback from his managers, he paled. He thought everyone agreed with his design for the system, but instead found that the management team had detached from his decisions – and from him. With the project in danger of failing, Helmut offered to resign but the other division heads said he was still the best person to lead the project. Responding to the blunt feedback, Helmut reengaged his team to review earlier design decisions, listened to their ideas, and modified the direction of the project. With their decision-making process back on track, the team successfully completed the roll-out on schedule later in the year.

    What would your organization’s future look like if you made decisions by throwing darts at a dartboard or reading a deck of tarot cards? How effective can your decisions be if they don’t engage the knowledge and experience of the people who work with you? What roadblocks would you run into if you failed to consider relationships in your decisions? Conversations to make decisions are the knife that whittles a universe of possibilities into success.

Leadership Conversations to Take Action. Executives from four government agencies held a planning workshop to determine how they could work together more effectively. They moved decisively through the process of evaluating performance gaps and identifying areas to improve. They selected nine new initiatives and prioritized them based on cost, risk, and return on investment. But when it came to allocating staff and funding, the process came to a screeching halt. The agencies didn’t have resources available to begin even the highest-priority initiative. The facilitator asked the executives, “What will you stop doing in order to begin the new initiatives?” They couldn’t agree on ways to free-up resources, so they delayed action by adding the initiatives to the following year’s budget request. Predictably, Congress not only didn’t approve the increases, they cut the previous year’s budget so the innovations were never implemented.

     In today’s always-connected world, you rarely need more information – you need more action. Don’t wait for the perfect time to start, respond now to the changes around you. Take one small action and follow it with another – avoid analysis-paralysis. Don’t let an opportunity evaporate while you search for the ideal solution because one usually doesn’t exist. What appears to be ideal today could be less than ideal if you wait too long to implement it. Furthermore, curtailing old actions is as important as starting new ones, yet it is often more difficult.

Enhance Your Conversations.  These four types of conversations are familiar because you participate in them every day, and hear them happening at levels above and below you. You may feel proficient in some conversations and uncomfortable with others. Evaluate your aptitude in each of the four as the basis for improving your communications, teamwork, and results. We understand that you are busy, but taking time to improve your conversations will reveal possibilities that you otherwise may not see. Use three criteria to measure the effectiveness of your next leadership conversation: (1) Is everyone taking action based on the same information and goals, (2) Have cultural and other differences that block productivity been eliminated, and (3) Is everyone working in unison toward the agreed-upon objectives according to the agreed-upon schedule?


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