A Case for Conversations

By: Shane Gillies

Army officers Joe Byerly and Jon Silk recently wrote about leveraging conversations as a leader—Joe writing about turning performance counseling into a conversation on his blog and Jon about storytelling, conversational learning, and mission command on The Bridge. I piggyback by touching on the need for everyday conversations as a leader.

Dilbert (8/8/13)—Despite what it says about engineers not caring about that stuff, even if your organization’s new strategy is not the greatest, your frontline workers do care how they fit into the big picture.
Dilbert (8/8/13)—Despite what it says about engineers not caring about that stuff, even if your organization’s new strategy is not the greatest, your frontline workers do care how they fit into the big picture.

A year ago, my squadron’s leadership team developed a new strategic plan, including new mission and vision statements. This effort required a considerable number of hours of discussion and debate that eventually yielded not only the new mission and vision statements, but strategic focus areas and a number of objectives tied to those focus areas. After the details were captured in PowerPoint, squadron leadership briefed the plan to the rest of the squadron and created posters for display. Sadly, though, like in many situations in which an organization rolls out a new strategic plan, the initial buzz quickly faded and the new plan faded into the boring, everyday scenery.

After deploying and being away from the squadron for more than 7 months, I returned to work interested to see what had changed during that period and to get up to speed on current projects. I set out to have conversations in each functional work center rather than sit at my computer and study staff meeting slides or our Kanban task/priority charts. During those conversations, I typically asked questions such as:

– What are you currently working on?
– Why is it important?
– Who is having you work on that particular task or project?
– What don’t you like about the task or project? How would you do it better?

In advance of a squadron leadership off-site, intended to review the effectiveness of the strategic plan one year after conceiving it, I also asked another question during my conversations:

– If someone were to ask you what the squadron’s mission is, what would your answer be?

The answers I received about their work and the squadron’s mission were enlightening in their candor and diversity and quickly confirmed that the strategic plan had not been effectively communicated throughout the ranks. Not a single person could tell me the squadron’s exact mission statement and out of the dozen or so people that I asked this question, only one replied with an answer that was close to the mission statement. Instead, several of the individuals explained what they did on a day-to-day basis in place of explaining the squadron’s big picture mission. When I pointed out that the mission and vision statements were posted at both entrances that squadron members pass through multiple times each day, they confirmed that the posters had faded into the normal landscape because they never noticed them.

At the off-site, I shared my findings with the leadership team to surprise from some, but also to some admitted resignation. Members of the team cited the brief to the squadron after the strategic plan was created and the posters hanging by the entrances, but largely acknowledged that they had not focused enough on communicating the plan after that initial push. It was completely understandable: after having spent so many hours producing the plan, the leaders of the squadron were intimately familiar with the details—so much so that the team suffered from The Curse of Knowledge and assumed everyone else in the squadron understood the plan just as much.

As a way ahead, I emphasized the need to have two-way conversations throughout all levels of the squadron, from the squadron commander to the junior-most Airmen. Executive Chairman and former CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, used a conversational approach when meeting company execs and mentioned it in the book that he and Jonathan Rosenberg wrote about their experiences at Google, How Google Works:

Eric likes to put this concept to the test when he walks the halls of Google or of the other companies with which he’s involved. When he runs into an exec he hasn’t seen in a while, the pleasantries don’t last long. After a cordial hello he’ll get to the point: “What’s going on in your job? What issues do you have? Tell me about that deliverable you owe me.” This has a couple of results: It helps Eric keep on top of the details of his business, and it helps him know which of his executives are on top of the details of their business.

They go on to write:

Conversation is still the most important and valuable form of communication, but technology and the pace of work often conspire to make it one of the rarest.

Conversation is rare because leaders are busy juggling decisions, signatures, emails, meetings, administrivia, and other time sinks that only seem to increase with rank. Yet, a quality conversation can reduce the time required by these other activities by creating a common understanding and alignment throughout the organization. The challenge for a leader, then, is to break away from those time sinks for long enough to have beneficial conversations.

I stress that these conversations should be two-way conversations. Whereas they should not be a robotic recital of the unit’s themes, these conversations should not be a series of interrogative drive-by questions either. There is certainly an art to conducting these conversations well and they take practice—this coming from an introvert! While Schmidt took a very business-focused angle in his conversations in the first passage, leaders should try to incorporate both work and personal aspects in their conversations to help identify any personal issues that could be impacting work and vice versa.

Ideally, these conversations should achieve a few objectives.

First, a conversation done well is an opportunity for leaders to get closer to seeing the likely “ground truth” at lower levels. As I discovered during my circulations after returning from my deployment, you can see how well decisions and messages at higher levels cascade down to lower levels. You might discover that what made sense on a PowerPoint slide in a closed-door staff meeting does not translate to success when executed in the real world. When I asked a few of the squadron members about the unit mission, they delved into their own feelings on things they did not like about the squadron and what they perceived to be its mission. How often do these insights show up in weekly staff meetings? Probably not very often. But it’s these valuable insights that can result in a positive change to a plan by tapping the views of those closest to its execution. Often, you can generate new innovations simply by asking a person what they hate about a task or project they’re involved in and how they would improve it.

Next, conversations provide an avenue for leaders to share unit themes and the reasoning behind particular decisions in a tailored manner that resonates more so than “unit all” emails and briefings. This is a perfect opportunity to explain how what an individual or team is working on fits into the big picture. And by virtue of having a conversation, you have the opportunity to look an individual in the eye and determine whether they truly understand. At my squadron off-site, squadron leaders worried that they could sound too repetitive if they brought up the strategic plan numerous times. Many leaders perceive this to be an issue, but in reality, it is far better to overcommunicate than to undercommunicate. To share one nugget from my deployment, “there’s really no such thing as overcommunication.” Such overcommunication is a critical part in achieving alignment throughout all levels of an organization, enabling individuals and teams to take initiative because they know where the organization wants to go.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, an effective two-way conversation shows personnel that what they are doing is valued by leadership because a good conversation does not take place without a time investment by the leader. This might appear patronizing on the surface. But think of it from the opposite perspective: how often have you worked on tasks or projects directed by your leadership where that same leadership showed no interest after they assigned it? How did that affect your motivation in working on the project? Engaging in conversations with your people shows that you are willing to invest your time and show that they as individuals and what they are doing are important to you. And by showing that you care about an individual’s work by seeking their feedback and helping them understand why that work matters, you can inspire them to “own” that task or project. This ultimately results in people who are more engaged and results that are better for the organization.

We are all busy. We can sit behind a computer screen and make the dangerous assumption that our people know our expectations for them and that we know what the “ground truth” is. Or we can get out and talk to our people with the realization that although quality conversations require a time investment, they can yield significant results that can make or break mission success. Think about your daily routine — how can you carve out time to have effective, two-way conversations with your people?

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