When my phone rings after midnight, it’s rarely a good thing.
As a parent, I worry about a kid with car trouble, or one that has had a bit too much fun at a party and needs a ride home. But this time the call was from Bill, the CEO of a leading multinational company and a client and friend I’d known for years. His voice sounded weary and frustrated as he said, “I need help. I’m talking, but my best people aren’t hearing me.”
It turns out that Bill and his senior staff had spent months crafting a new strategy to address some important competitive challenges they were experiencing in nearly every market. After weeks of refining their ideas, they’d landed on an approach that everyone on the team agreed was brilliant and innovative. “This was a strategy designed to leave our competitors scrambling to catch up. I felt pretty good about what we’d accomplished,” Bill shared.
To implement the strategy, Bill and the senior team agreed that the next important step was to include the top 200 company leaders in their plan, so they promptly organized the three-day executive meeting from which he’d just returned. Leaders of major markets from all over the world traveled to the US for the meeting. On opening day, there was roughly $200 million worth of corporate brain trust assembled in the ballroom of a large resort. The room buzzed with excitement, as rumors swirled about the company’s new direction and who would be in charge of leading various initiatives.
Prior to opening remarks, meeting facilitators polled the attendees with two questions about their thoughts on the company’s leading challenges and the level of confidence they had that the company could successfully implement a strategy to address those challenges.
Soon, the lights dimmed, and Bill walked on to the stage with his team. He described the market challenges the business was facing and the strategy his team had developed to remedy the narrowing gap between the company and its No. 2 competitor. Bill’s direct reports then followed, one by one stepping up and sharing their ideas about how the new strategy might affect their functional areas.
The audience was informed that they would be spending the next three days working on implementation recommendations to put the strategy into action. Each attendee was assigned to a group that was charged with examining a specific part of the strategic plan. Most groups worked late into the night, with the discussions often morphing into heated debates, as group after group identified flaws in the strategy.
It was not until after dinner on day 2 that Bill got word that the teams were struggling to make progress and that frustration was growing. Participants felt that the complexities of implementing Bill’s strategy in such widely varied markets around the world had not been adequately considered. Worse, the attendees (rightfully) believed that they were being force-fed the new strategy, and the attempt to get their input through this meeting had come way too late in the game.
On the final day of the gathering, attendees were again polled with the same two questions asked on opening day. To Bill’s dismay, the level of confidence expressed in the company’s ability to successfully address market challenges declined significantly. As the meeting unraveled, Bill began to understand that the mistake he’d made was less about his attempt to communicate the plan to the larger management group and more about his oversight in including them in the crafting of the strategy from the beginning. He hadn’t connected with the leaders who were closest to the challenge, and his team had focused more on communication than on conversation. The poll results proved it.
As leaders embrace next-decade challenges, conversation will become an increasingly valuable tool for generating ideas, building engagement, incorporating diverse perspectives, growing organizational knowledge and driving innovation. The outcomes from conversation far outweigh the benefits of communication along a variety of dimensions, as noted below.
If you’re serious about leading well in the coming decade, especially with a Generation X and millennial workforce that research says values opportunities to give input, it’s important to ask yourself these five questions:
- Am I talking with people, or at them?
- What’s the quality of the conversation going on within my team?
- Am I including insights from a diverse array of individuals, even those who may not agree with me?
- Am I building commitment to our direction within the culture of the organization by relentlessly sharing and soliciting perspectives?
- Are we creating new knowledge through discussion and debate that can help us expand our ideas and innovate?
Communication will always be important, but to tap all that your corporate brain trust has to offer, make sure that your best people aren’t benched during the critical conversations that drive business success.
Alaina Love is chief operating officer and president of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results” (McGraw-Hill). She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and leadership expert, and passionate about everything having to do with, well … passion. Her passion archetypes are Builder, Transformer and Healer. You can learn more about how to grow leaders, build passionate teams and leverage passion to create great customer outcomes here.
When she’s not working with her Fortune 500 client base, Love is busy writing her next book, “Passionality, The Art and Science of Finding Your Passion and Living Your Bliss,” which explores the alignment of personality, purpose and passion, and the science of how it contributes to our well being. Follow Love on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or her blog.
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