Critical Conversations

Leaders get things done through others. Leaders constantly need to prioritize tasks, develop strategies, and delegate responsibilities. The most effective leaders know how to have outrageous conversations and they know the most important leadership transactions still take place in live, in-person conversations. Virtual communications such as e-mail or SMS are faster and more convenient than "in-person" options for staying connected and sharing information, but problems arise when these forms of communication are used to avoid critical or challenging messages that can have significant impact on an organization.

Good leaders embrace technology to enhance communication; great leaders however, are careful not to replace in-person conversations required to get difficult things done.

There are three types of critical onversations for leaders to master. One-on-one meetings, small group discussions, and one-to-many town-hall style sessions, and there are three ways to improve them. The effectiveness of each style of meeting depends on the participants and the setting, the credibility and completeness of the leader's intent, and the responsiveness to and emotional engagement with the audience.

1 - The right participants and the setting: First, be sure you invite the right people and select the right type of meeting for the conversation. We all know the typical problems - some people use multiple one-on-one's when they should have a group interaction, or vice-versa; group meetings are rarely productive when attendance is restricted to only certain senior members; and, some leaders will do anything to avoid town halls because they are visibly nervous or "wooden" in front of a crowd.

The physical setup is also important, for example, does the space allow for good eye contact? Does it project the right informality? Does it promote reflective dialogue when called for? Try a different format, or include or exclude one or two people and see what happens, and learn from it.

2 - Credible and complete intent: Your audience must understand and trust the purpose you have stated for the conversation. Try this as you prepare for your next one-on-one meeting. List the outcomes you desire, starting with concrete ones such as "we will agree to these two specific performance goals". Keep going until you exhaust the more abstract desired outcomes, such as - "he knows I really want him to succeed and will do everything I can to help". You typically have five to ten desired outcomes in a "one-on-one" chat, and it is important to prepare a complete list of intents and think through how to convey them ahead of time.

3 - Responsiveness and emotional engagement: The best leaders go beyond good listening to make a caring connection at an emotional level. They respond to the other's needs as they surface, thereby building trust. A good leader is willing to adjust their goals for the conversation, based on the discoveries they make about other's needs, while staying true to their own values. This doesn't mean being flexible to the point of agreeing to whatever the other party wishes, but rather being open to a set of shared outcomes.

The ability to engage in direct, persuasive in-person conversations remains the skill most crucial to a leader's success, and good leaders will ask for help to improve their conversation skills. All too often, the tendency is to search to improving teamwork at the top, greater empowerment down the line, or increasing the rate of innovation, however, when you investigate, you usually find that the right conversations either didn't happen, or they failed to produce the necessary outcomes.

 Good leaders can't afford not to have their conversations work the way they should, both for themselves, and for the good of the organization.