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Leadership Conversations: A Lost Art

By Rich Wellins, Ph.D.

Richard S. Wellins, Ph.D.

The September 21, 2015 issue of TIME was dubbed the “Question Everything” issue. It was chock-full of questions and opinionated answers on everything from, “Do robots need rights?” to “Would you trade off beauty for brains—or vice versa?” (sadly, I have little to spare of either).

The article was a great read and several of the questions got me thinking. But, what really switched on my insight button was the introduction to the section of the magazine entitled “Can we save conversation?” Nancy Gibbs, who wrote the brilliant one-pager, proposed that we have lost the art of true conversation. Ironic, she points out, that it is in a world where digital communication has exploded.

Leadership Conversations: A Lost ArtThe answer to her question was a resounding “Yes!” In her own words, “True conversation, the analog kind, face to face, may be the least efficient form of conversation. It requires the patience to listen, and the courage to learn, to be surprised, to arrive at a conclusion you’d never have foreseen when you set out from your home harbors. And, it is fueled by the kind of questions you wouldn’t normally think to ask.” Nancy, you got it so totally right, not only in our personal lives, but perhaps more so, in our work world.

In today’s high-speed business environment, million dollar decisions are made through emails. Our professional networks are solidified through brief LinkedIn commentary. Employee feedback is given and responded to digitally. We are even expected to learn the very skills that fuel effective conversations through analog, one-way training courses without any human interactions. Can we really learn how to maintain the esteem of others or to listen and respond with empathy without actually practicing conversing with others face to face? I can’t tell you how many times I have heard, “Let’s not discuss this over email.” But, dozens of email exchanges still happen! Pick up the phone! Have a discussion! And, yes, I am guilty!

High-quality conversations are particularly pertinent to those of us in a leadership role. While there are thousands of books about what constitutes successful leadership, we are defined as leaders by an ongoing series of successful conversations: conversations with peers, bosses, team members, suppliers and customers, and other stakeholders. Conversations that are upward, downward, sideways, and outside. Conversations about strategy, individual performance, career growth, new products, alliances, customer satisfaction, and innovation. I counted the number of “formal” conversations I had over a typical three-day period. They totaled 18!  Each one, in its own way, was critical to accomplishing my own goals and the goals of those I work with. Seventeen went well, and one very poorly. The poor one, unfortunately, will be remembered long after the 17 good ones.

Great conversation, consistently, day after day, is no easy task. We are busy. We sometimes lack the courage to have the tough conversations. And, we often lack the right skills. It might have been better to tagline this article, “a lost skill,” rather than “a lost art.”  Collectively, if we can up the frequency and quality of conversations we have as leaders, we can make more of a difference both inside and outside the workplace.

In my new book with Tacy Byham, Your First Leadership Job, we talk about how leadership is a conversation. Great conversations, over and over again are what great leadership is about. Positive conversations are expected. But twenty good ones will not make up for a single lousy one. There are a set of core skills for having these conversations that we talk about in the book. Mastering them so they become almost second nature is critical.

I’d love to converse with you about conversations. Feel free to respond digitally. But, better yet, give me a call at 1-412-257-3805, so we can talk! What a novel idea.

Rich Wellins, Ph.D., is a senior vice president at DDI.

Posted: 30 Oct, 2015,
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