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Leadership through conversations

5 min read


Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of facilitating a discussion for a webinar for alumni of Georgetown University titled, “Conversations are the Work of a Leader.”

In spite of my limitations as a presenter, there was a lot of appreciative feedback about the messages conveyed: that as senior managers and leaders we need to be connected with our people, and not just through e-mail, newsletters and town hall meetings. We need to get out of our offices, off our executive floors and speak with the people who are doing the work of our companies.

There were poignant comments and questions during and after the webinar, such as, “I wish my boss was listening. He doesn’t get it,” and, “How do we get this message to our senior managers? They spend most of their time talking to each other, not to us.”

There were many similar comments and questions. Clearly this subject sparked interest; people feel strongly that conversations are vitally important. We need to understand that conversations truly are the work of a leader.

There is the adage, “Managers focus are results; leaders focus on people.” That really should be “leaders focus on results and people,” as in today’s hyper-competitive business environment, we must hit our financial goals or we may not keep our jobs. But how are we going to keep our good people energized and engaged if we don’t invest the time to know them as our team members and what is important to them?

Every business is a people business. Our relationships with our clients are essential to our success — with external clients and, equally important, with our internal clients, our people. Yes, we must think of our people as our internal clients. They are the ones doing the work of our companies and they deserve our attention and respect. And the better the quality of our relationships, the better we’ll do as leaders and in our businesses.

Here’s compelling background: Morale in business today is low, witness that 40% of the workforce does not feel appreciated and 70% of the workforce does not feel fully engaged!

In my leadership consulting and coaching work, I repeatedly hear comments like, “I see our top people occasionally — in the lobby of our building. They seldom come out of the executive wing.”

Senior managers spend up to 50% of their time in meetings, and much of their remaining time speaking with each other, on calls, and in front of their computers. Most of their communication is through e-mails and or is delegated to those who report to them.

We have to free ourselves up. We have to make our meetings shorter, more efficient and more productive, and then take the time for conversations with our people.

Read the book “The 100/0 Principle: The Secret of Great Relationships” by Al Ritter. Al tells his story about how he lost his team members. They didn’t want to work for him any longer because he was driving them hard without relating to them as people.

Our people need to feel they are:

  • Appreciated and valued
  • Heard, and their ideas matter
  • An important member of a team
  • Learning, growing and advancing

Everyone wants to be successful, and their professional development is our responsibility as well as theirs.

Servant leadership is worth studying, as it is a philosophy that can help us be most effective with our leadership responsibilities. It is about serving first, serving those with whom we work, and that is more important than the power and perhaps material possessions that result from our position.

A test of our being a servant leader is whether or not our people feel they are learning, growing and succeeding.

The way we help our people learn, grow and succeed is by being there with them — mentoring, teaching, encouraging, coaching them, helping them feel appreciated, inspired and empowered.

There is a wonderful quotation, “To become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them.”

Let’s think of how we use our time and energy as an investment, and that we need to invest in our two top priorities, which are our results and our relationships.

Successful people with whom I work have friendly, productive conversations that lead to new clients and assignments and improve morale. They drop by people’s desks and they pick up the phone rather than e-mailing, and ask how they are doing. They say “Good job,” and “Thank you,” and “What can we do for you? What are your ideas for our company?”

A short, good quality conversation is better than no conversation. So even when traveling, we can make calls from taxis and airports, check in with our people, let them know we are thinking about them and that they are valued.

Of course there are difficult conversations that we must have, and that many of us avoid. I could write a whole new article about the art of difficult conversations. Rather, I recommend that you read the book “Fierce Conversations” by Susan Scott. It is a gem, so many helpful ideas. Scott really gets it. She writes, “The conversation is the relationship,” and “Treat each conversation as the most important conversation we will ever have with that person, as it may well be,” and “Conversations are the work of a leader.”

Let’s remember that good conversations mean we ask questions, do only 20% of the talking, and we listen to understand and learn.

I hope this post is helpful, as I know the practice of leadership through conversations will absolutely serve us and our businesses well.

John Keyser is the founder and principal of Common Sense Leadership. He works with executives helping them develop organizational cultures that will produce outstanding financial results year after year, and a striving for continuous improvement, theirs and their team’s. E-mail him or call 202-236-2800.

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