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Michael Slind: Part of an ongoing conversation

Leaders need to learn to foster conversations among those whom they lead, say the authors of a Harvard Business Review book about “organizational conversation.”

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November 6, 2012

In their book, “Talk, Inc.,” Michael Slind and co-author Boris Groysberg argue that “organizational conversation” should replace the command-and-control model as companies and other organizations move away from top-down leadership.

What is organizational conversation? They define it as a new way to convey information within organizations in which traditional corporate communication is replaced by a style similar to conversations between two individuals.

This emerging model of conversation is marked by intimacy, interactivity, inclusion and intentionality -- the characteristics of an ordinary two-person conversation. And, they say, by using this new form of organizational power, large organizations can have the nimbleness and atmosphere of trust that is the hallmark of a start-up.

Groysberg is a professor at Harvard Business School, and Slind is a communication professional and former editor at Fast Company magazine. In an interview with Faith & Leadership, Slind talked about organizational conversation and how leaders can foster it. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What is organizational conversation?

Michael Slind photoIt is our term for what we believe is an emerging model for how leaders are managing communication and conducting communication within their organizations.

We contrast that to the old model, which was captured by the term “corporate communication.” It was top-down. It was one-way. It was highly controlled. And it tended to be very situational or tactical or reactive: “We have to have a press release because we have to announce our quarterly results.” It wasn’t, in short, strategic.

We call the new model “organizational conversation” because people are trying to organize communication within their company or their organization in a way that maps to personal conversation.

Q: As a leader, how do you create the trust to allow this kind of conversation?

The easy way to answer the question is to point to interesting business practices that we encountered in our research.

An example is that of Jim Rogers, the CEO of Duke Energy. Back when he was the CEO of a precursor company called Cinergy he instituted what he called “listening sessions” with his employees.

It’s not unusual for leaders to have Q&A sessions with their people. What was striking about what he did is he actually put an emphasis on listening. In this case, the terminology can make a difference.

By saying, “I’m just here to listen; I’m not even going to talk until I hear what’s on your mind,” I think that goes some distance toward eliciting trust.

But the more interesting thing about what he did is, he went a step further, and he invited his employees at one of these listening sessions to issue formal grades just like you’d give to a student in school: A, B, C, D or F.

Right there, in front of people who work for him, he was able to see what they thought of him. I think that’s a key toward gaining trust -- just be willing to be vulnerable. It was a big boon for him to see that these people who report to him don’t think he’s necessarily doing such a great job.

He didn’t get any Fs, fortunately, but he got pretty much as many Bs and Cs as he did As. It launched him on an endeavor to learn from his employees about what he could do better.

Q: How do you develop the confidence and the thick skin to do this?

Leaders whom we talked to would often say, “We were really worried, but once we did it, we realized that it wasn’t that big a deal.” The fear goes away, and you realize that employees are responsible adults. There are other ways of making sure that people will respect your authority than by muzzling them. You gain a lot by just listening to what people have to say. So a lot of it is just taking the leap and seeing what happens.

We still very much believe that leaders have to lead, but the way in which people do lead is changing, especially in a more complex organization.

You need to have smart people around you and you need to be able to hear what they know and what they have in mind -- and that means that you just have to give up some control. But that doesn’t mean that you cease leading and that’s where intentionality comes in.

You still have to set the overall tone, the overall direction for the organizational conversation. You have to make clear that this conversation has to support whatever goals the organization has. Then I think you’ll find that you don’t need to control or worry about every other little thing that might happen if you open up other aspects of the communication process.

Q: You describe this in terms of four I’s. What are they?

The first is intimacy, and this really has to do with narrowing the distance between you as a leader and the people you’re trying to communicate with.

If you’re in a large organization, that means making sure you get your face in front of people. But it also has to do with the institutional gaps that exist within organizations, the big gaps of status and so on.

The second is interactivity, and that gets into the idea of moving from one-way to two-way communication. A lot of it has to do with using technologies to encourage back-and-forth communication. It also has to do with creating a culture in which people feel they can talk back to their leaders.

The third of the four is inclusion. Inclusion has to do with letting everyone participate in communication. Traditionally, communication within organizations was very tightly controlled.

Those first three I’s are about opening up a conversation and making things less closed and controlled than they used to be.

The fourth I is almost in counterpoint to that. The fourth I we call intentionality. Smart leaders are not just opening up the conversation but are making sure that it is managed so that it supports strategic objectives, that it supports the overall message that the company wants to convey or the overall story that the company wants to tell about itself internally and externally.

Leaders can’t relinquish their ability -- or the responsibility, I should say -- to lead. And they lead, by and large, and not by trying to control every move of communication that happens within their organization but by having a thread that they follow, a story that they follow. They are always making sure that communication efforts don’t stray very far from the overarching message that they want everyone in their company to have in mind.

Q: How does this conversation benefit the leader?

If you don’t open up the channel -- if you just rely on listening to people that directly report to you -- you're not going to gather essential information about what people care about, what people know, where challenges and opportunities in the organization lie.

It also makes people at all levels of an organization feel greater ownership and a greater sense of participation. They become more enthusiastic about the work they’re doing and more engaged in the overall enterprise.

Q: You talk about telling the story of the organization. Why is it important that people feel like they’re part of a shared story?

There are benefits from having a sense that you’re part of something larger and meaningful -- that you’re not just a cog in a machine doing your little thing, but you have a sense of how what you’re doing matters to the overall enterprise.

That actually increases commitment and enthusiasm on the part of employees.

Also, practically, it’s harder and harder for members of an organization to do what they need to do unless they see themselves as part of a larger, ongoing story. They need to know how what they're doing relates to what other people are doing. In each part in the organization, people’s responsibility hinges on their ability to see a series of important connections between what they do and what other people are doing.

That is just a very sophisticated and complex process. And people need to be involved in an ongoing, back-and-forth, not just top-down but also bottom-up conversation: Why are we here? Why is this organization here? What larger purpose does it serve?

Those kinds of questions become much more meaningful as part of an ongoing conversation.