The Power of Conversational leadership

280 chief executives in the S&P 500 have left their positions between 2013 and 2017. The disconnect between the expectation and the reality of being a CEO — mentioned not only by those in our interviews whose tenure proved to be short and arduous but also by successful leaders — could be one reason why the median tenure of chief executive officers at S&P 500 companies was only five years at the end of 2017.

According to the HBR interviews, three factors stand out

  1. Managing energy and time efficiently
  2. Establishing a clear framework for managing relationships with board members and external stakeholders
  3. Ensuring that the right information flows up and out of the organization.

Why is this information of utmost importance? In fact it is a clear shout out for help!

Successful managers no longer rely on the traditional authority of the “command and control” culture to deliver outcomes. Instead managers and leaders, need to foster relationships and exert influence to build commitment and accountability in their teams. This requires a whole new management style—one focused around conversational leadership.

Leadership is about constant communication. In fact almost 90% of a leader’s time is spent on communication -influencing, motivating, inspiring, harnessing creativity, and resolving conflict. The best form of leadership therefore is with leaders understanding that one of their functions in shaping and evolving an organization is to consciously address the essential conversations, which form how people think and act. It does not mean indulging in endless talking but rather identifying and engaging with the vital and often courageous exchanges that facilitate meaningful change.

What does conversational leadership actually mean in the everyday working life of a leader? It first means ANYONE CAN BE A CONVERSATIONAL LEADER.

So what is the problem?

Many leaders say they want to improve dialogue, but they do not see how much room for improvement there is. As a result, they see it as a ‘nice to have’ rather than a priority.

Coupled with the fact that traditional leadership needs to be unlearned we have a few important barriers:

  • Barrier 1: The “Tell and Inform” corporate communications is not a conversation

The standard model of corporate communication is still top down. The top of the organization determines content and distributes information. Corporate communicators and many leaders see their role as promoting and defending the organization. This leaves little role for listening or discussion. There sure is communication – just not the interactive kind that builds engagement.

  • Barrier 2: Providing ‘answers’ and not asking questions

In everyday decision-making, managers and leaders look at quickly solving an issue, providing answers or giving instructions. If every time a manager speaks he needs a PowerPoint, script and detailed FAQs then the whole possibility of looking into newer realms and exploring through the vitality of a dialogue is lost. Leaders need to draw people out, listen to them, ask questions to open dialogue, create channels of honest conversations.

  • Barrier 3: Avoiding Difficult conversations

Suppressing conversations, avoiding conflict and skirting around the edges of the issues create complete disengagement. The result is Organizational silence.

  • Barrier 4: The well-trodden path of ‘it has worked before’

The spiraling down the path often taken, the ‘it has worked before’ quips and the cultural blind spots are the toughest barriers to crack. In teams people want to be seen as ‘team players’, so they often conform to the majority view. This means that many meetings and conversations become comfortable rituals rather than rigorous or challenging, and teams slip into uncritical ‘Groupthink’. Consensus is often chosen at the expense of conversation.

So how do you get started as a Conversational Leader?

That’s simple, start talking! Talk more!

  • Purposefully connect yourself with people. In your Organization and outside.
  • Speak with candor. Ask in curiosity. Listen with empathy
  • It is through conversation that anything of importance gets done, and it is through conversation that we transform the world. Since the dawn of time, conversation has been the principal tool for human communication and collaboration.
  • As conversational leaders develop positive conversational habits in your everyday interactions with people.

Conversational Leadership takes root when leaders see their organizations as dynamic webs of conversation and consider conversation as a core process for effecting positive systemic change.

Taking a strategic approach to this core process can not only grow intellectual and social capital but also provide a collaborative advantage in our increasingly networked world.

~ Jaunita Brown, The World Cafe





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