Before you plunge into this, take a moment – and think about leaders that you have admired in your life. This could be a teacher, a scout leader, a sports coach or a boss. Go on – do it now.
When you think of a leader in your life that you have admired, does a specific conversation come to mind?
I think most of us can remember at least one (maybe even several) conversations that we have had with a great ‘boss’. A conversation that somehow shifted something in our thinking, understanding or behaviour.
Great conversations have a powerful impact.
But great conversations are also time consuming and for exactly that reason – they are also often the most neglected part of your leadership toolkit. We don’t seem to find the time.
That is a shame because when we neglect our conversations, we miss out on one of the most effective leadership instruments at our disposal.
Now, conversations are not just conversations, they come in many forms, some are constructive/destructive, important/irrelevant or inspiring/draining etc.
So as a first time leader, the first step is to become more aware of our conversations and in that process look at:
- The quality
- The participants
- The frequency
What is a Quality Conversation?
Most conversations can be categorized as anything from weak at one end of the spectrum to strong at the other end.
A strong conversation has three key ingredients:
- Advancement of an agenda
- Shared learning
- A strengthening of the relationship
At the other end of the spectrum, we have the weak conversations. At best they lead nowhere. And at worst, they produce confusion and distrust.
A high-quality conversation typically has three stages:
The initiator of the conversation sets up her agenda with an honest feeling or sincere expression of need. This signals to the other participant(s) in the conversation the importance of the agenda. At the same time, it can also a request for help and an invitation to contribution.
Strong conversations often follow a natural path of divergences / convergence that goes something like this:
In the first phase, you establish rapport and set the scene.
You ‘frame’ the situation, explain your view and if possible, illustrate what you mean.
The second phase, you explore, primarily using questions. You are probing in an effort to uncover and surface the real assumptions behind the issue as well as to make sure that we have as many facts as possible on the table.
Once we have a common understanding of what is going on, we can move to a third phase where we examine alternative ideas and solutions. This is a phase where we can try and stretch our thinking and not fall into the trap of grabbing the first solution that surfaces.
Finally, we need to make choices and decide what actions to take. This is a critical phase because often we assume that everybody is in agreement about what it is we need to do and everybody sees everything the same way and therefore there’s no need to going to details about this. (and time is running so we all nod and grab our stuff and rush of to the next thing on our agenda.)
But more often than not, this is not the case. We all hear what we would like to hear and we can all fall into the trap of going with half baked inferences and assumptions.
So in the final phase of a great conversation, we agree on explicit action steps: Who does what and when.
In order to move elegantly through this diamond, it is helpful to learn certain communicative dance steps. We call them advocacy and inquiry. We can get back to them in a future post.
Who are you talking to?
The next thing I would like you to consider is who are you actually having conversations with?
Take a moment and think about the week that has passed. Who did you talk to beyond just “So how are you?” or “Did you watch football yesterday?” etc.,
What quality conversations have you had and with whom?
And maybe even more importantly, who did you not have conversations with?
Why do you think you did not have conversations with exactly those people? Often our most immediate answer to that is “No time” or “They weren’t available.” or something else in that category. But often these are just excuses.
When we explore this question deeper, we often realise that there are some people we have a tendency to avoid having real conversations with. There can be many reasons for this, from simply we just don’t really enjoy those people, or that those conversations always end up negatively, or that we know that we have disagreements that we don’t want to resurface.
But also, be aware if there are people that you’re not having conversations with because you are assuming that it’s not necessary. “They know where to find me, they are capable and will tell me if they need me.” etc. That may be true but my suggestion is to test your own assumption on this. You might be surprised.
Whatever the reason is for avoidance, it should be a big red flag waving in front of you telling you something needs sorting out.
Because having or not having conversations and with whom is part of your behaviour pattern – see my previous post and it sends strong implicit signals about what you are interested in/ focused on.
How often are you having quality conversations?
The next thing to consider when you look at the people that you are responsible for is to evaluate the frequency with which you have powerful conversations with them.
Look at the list of the people on your team and think through how often do you actually sit down with them and have a powerful conversation?
Are you happy with this frequency? What do you think would happen if you increased the frequency for all or some of them?
If you think back to the first post in this series on Action, Behaviours and Conversations, we looked at the concept of powerful and powerless. That applies here as well. Powerless leaders have weak wichy washy conversations – powerful leaders have strong engaging conversations.
Generally, there is a huge need for more real conversations out there, not less. Quality conversations are the glue of our relationships, they are highly motivating – and they generate trust.
This is the eighth article in a series on how to lead as a first time manger. If you would like to know more, check out other articles of the first time manager series:
- How are you supporting your first time managers?
- The big leap… from team member to team leader
- First time manager – The challenges
- Direction, Alignment & Commitment in 4 easy steps
- Powerful or powerless, what do you prefer?
- Conversations, not small talk
- Take charge of your energy levels!
- You won’t get results by pussyfooting around the issues!
- What drives a fabulous employee experience?
I have a new online training out on this: The Team Leaders Toolbox – check it out