Never underestimate the power of a conversation.
From Procter and Gamble to Jobs and Wozniak, business history is filled with stories of iconic organizations that grew from two people talking.
Although every conversation can’t lead to the founding of a billion-dollar company, leaders using focused conversations can revitalize an organization and guide people to achieve a collective vision.
Unfortunately, these productive conversations aren’t happening often enough in organizations today. Even when it comes to basic conversations like goal setting, performance review and performance evaluation, our research finds that the amount of conversation people want and need from their managers falls at least 25 percent short of what they’re getting.
Organizations can fill that communication gap by teaching leaders and direct reports how to have more focused conversations. These fall into two basic categories: alignment and one-on-one conversations.
Alignment conversations are the conversations leaders have with their people to make sure clear agreements about goals and expectations are in place. The purpose of an alignment conversation is for the leader and direct report to agree on the level of skill the direct report is bringing to that particular goal or task, as well as their levels of interest, commitment, enthusiasm and motivation. Without an understanding of these basics, a leader can’t provide the direction or support the person needs. Failure to have alignment conversations not only hurts the direct report, it also can hurt the organization as a whole.
Once alignment is in place, the one-on-one conversations can begin. These can cover anything from personal goals and development to professional successes and challenges. They’re designed as much to strengthen relationships as they are to improve performance.
One important aspect of one-on-one conversations is they allow direct reports to participate in their own development. That’s because today leadership is a partnership — a two-sided conversation.
Through one-on-one conversations, direct reports keep the leader informed when a situation is changing; for example, when they need more — or less — direction or support. Because alignment has already been established, these conversations easily can be tailored to the situation.
When a person is new to a task, the leader can reassure him or her by providing teaching and direction. “You’re new to this, so I’m going to be working closely with you until you get the hang of it.”
When people have begun to tackle a task and are confused or discouraged, the leader can give direction, listen and provide perspective, encouragement or support. “You seem frustrated. I’ll be happy to continue to help you. I’d also like to hear your ideas.”
Perhaps a person has mastered a task but he or she is not entirely confident about it yet. This is where it’s important for leaders to remember that it’s not always their job to provide answers — sometimes it’s just as important to ask the right questions.
For instance, Carmen Nemecek, one of our top consulting partners, said, “Will the person I’m serving be better as a result of me telling them what to do — or by me asking questions to draw from them things they probably already know? If we immediately think, ‘I have to solve this problem and provide the answer,’ then we miss out on the opportunity to help people develop their own skills.”
When a person has fully mastered a goal or task, the leader can foster creativity and support the person’s growth by encouraging the person to teach or mentor. “Great job! Would you like to develop a course on that?”
One-on-one conversations are not only important for the direct report, they’re also important for the organization. As Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz discovered when turning the company around in 2008, many of the best ideas come from the front line.
Conversation can be the lifeblood of an organization. Alignment and one-on-one conversations create motivation, lead to innovation and strengthen relationships. And great relationships build great organizations, so keep the conversation going.
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