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The Rise of the Conversational Leader

I'm sure you'll agree that the context in which we lead is changing fast. Digital transformation is an imperative now, not a nice to have!

Organisations are finding that the traditional ‘command and control’ system is just too slow and rigid for today's world. Leaders don't have all the answers anymore. For success we need more inclusive and collaborative leadership behaviours. The need for cross functional collaboration, external partnerships and delivering value through fast change is increasing at an exponential rate. We can see the impact of not changing and moving fast enough is having on once great organisations.

The need for authentic, courageous and open dialogue within organisations and partnerships has never been greater.

In Leadership Laid Bare! I discuss that the role of a leader is to create a high performance environment where success is inevitable. And that as leaders we do that by awakening possibility in people to deliver extraordinary results.

I believe that in today's digital age, leadership is not just about measurement, KPIs and evaluation. It's about having authentic conversations with people both inside and outside your organisation.

It's refreshing to see many organisations banning and throwing out traditional appraisals and performance management systems. They are far too restrictive, costly and can drive disengaged people. I've heard that some organisations like Adobe required 80,000 hours from the company’s 2,000 managers – the equivalent of 40 full time employees per year to run an annual appraisal system that didn't work! Deloitte was spending 2 million hours per year on unproductive activities related to annual appraisals. I've seen organisations work out the cost of the annual appraisal to be around £2,000 per employee! That is a great deal of sales required to pay for that!

If you were leading a sports team you wouldn't get to half way through the season to see how you were doing and then review how you did at the end of the season!

You would have ongoing conversations will all the team members, consistently driving learning, action and performance improvement.

I believe leadership is all about setting up the right rituals, routines and habits on a daily basis. It's about the discipline of developing momentum and ensuring the organisation is going in the right direction and that people can be the best they can be. That requires ongoing conversations. Leaders really need to be worldclass at having conversations both individually and in teams.

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One of the many problems I see is that some leaders try and ensure their organisations are too complicated! Subject Matter Experts driving complexity and proving how clever they are. Many leaders also make the mistake of confusing 'delivering at pace' with being busy, flooded with adrenaline and getting stuck in measurement and analysis.

I see many businesses obsessed with collecting data and generating reports. Data is useless unless you turn it into meaningful insights and then take action on the learning. You do that through authentic and courageous conversations with the right people.

Leaders seem to believe they are there to provide the answers rather than what is needed today. In today's world we need to lead by asking the right questions.

As you progress your leadership role you'll find yourself in more and more meetings. Sadly many leaders have no idea how to run effective meetings. We need to make sure our meetings rock and the level of conversation is right. So many meetings are surface level, lacking in trust to enable you to challenge and say what you really want to say. Meetings should be conversational, exciting, challenging and effective. And remember the most important part is what happens after the meeting. I've found that many leaders are lacking skills in the six attributes of a great conversation.

We use a great model when teaching conversational skills, The Team Dialogue Indicator™ developed by Dik Veenman. It is a really powerful way to assess how well you have real conversations in your team. We use Dik's diagnostic tool and then have conversations with leadership teams to drive understanding, connection and action. The difference it makes is incredible. The six attributes are:

Core Dimensions

  • Voicing – how comfortable are team members to express opinions and to challenge each other?
  • Inquiry – how keen are they to understand the views of others?
  • Productivity – how useful and productive are conversations?

Influencing Dimensions

  • Power – what is the role of power and hierarchy in typical conversations?
  • Structure – how tight and focused are typical conversations? How much scope is there for flexibility?
  • Attentiveness – how attentive and present are people in conversations?

Once understanding is in place we help leaders develop a toolbox of approaches and skills in collaboration, visual management techniques, facilitation, problem solving, hackathons, world cafe, open space, speaking out with courage and conviction, decoding and drawing out what the other person is really saying, how to be in the moment, managing the moodogram, unconscious bias and of course emotional intelligence.

Dialogue is the single most powerful tool for change. How good are the conversations in your organisation?

You can make sure the level of conversation is right in your organisation by developing your leaders to have the skill and the will to drive success one conversation at a time.

What to explore this fascinating topic more?  Here's an overview of what I believe great leaders should be doing in today's digital age...

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Every success,


P.s If you fancy joining me on our next Leadership Athlete Masterclass register your interest here:

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About the author

Graham Wilson

Graham Wilson

I enjoy and specialise in teaching leadership skills, how to create winning strategies, how to build high performance cultures. Outcomes and results are the most important measures for me!