The Power of Conversational Leadership

As many of you know, I’m a graduate of Harvard Business School. I always like to stay on top of new reserach at HBS, and the school’s Working Knowledge blog is a great way to do that. I thought I’d highlight a recent article that talked about the challenges of communications, especially in multinational corporations, and the best way to overcome them:

When a company is small, communication among employees is as simple as rolling a desk chair around the room to talk to the president, the admin, or the chief engineer. But as a company grows, communication becomes more difficult. And strategic direction can suffer as a result, even if those at the top assume otherwise.

“In many cases you have an executive team that’s so sure about company strategy, but then you go inside the organization and find that nobody else has a clue,” says Harvard Business School Professor Boris Groysberg. “Nobody knows what strategic conversations are actually unfolding.”

For that reason, many CEOs are reconsidering the classic command-and-control structure in which a few people are sending all the directives from the top of the corporate hierarchy. Instead, they are adopting a conversational approach. In their new book, Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power Their Organizations, Groysberg and communication professional Michael Slind show how several global companies are adopting principles of face-to-face conversation, and why this approach positively affects a company’s bottom line.

“In many ways the book is not about communication as much as it is about performance,” Groysberg says. “In an economic environment where there is so much uncertainty, the senior management of a company might not know where the company should be going in three years. But your frontline customer-facing people might. Having communication that goes bottom-up is just as important as having communication that goes top-down.”

To try to suss out best practices for communication, the authors interviewed communications directors and CEOs at more than 100 companies. “We were struck by how often that word ‘conversation’ kept popping up,” Slind says. “CEOs, especially, expressed an aspiration to promote a conversation in their organization. They talked about wanting everyone to be on board with the conversation about what they want to do with the company.”

Borne of those interviews, the book advocates an approach called “organizational conversation,” which applies to all processes a company uses to circulate information across the organization, rather than just from the top down. “It’s about creating a culture in which the communication function becomes something that more and more resembles the way that two friends would talk,” Slind says.

The properties of a good organizational conversation

The book divides good organizational conversation into four alliterative elements—intimacy, interactivity, inclusion, and intentionality—each of which applies to a particular attribute of an organization. “Intimacy is about leadership,” Groysberg explains. “Interactivity is about channels. Inclusion is about content. And intentionality is about goals, vision, and the strategy of getting things done.”

INTIMACY: The authors note that intimacy need not require physical proximity, which would be impossible in a multinational company where employees are separated by thousands of miles. Rather, it requires emotional or mental intimacy. “It’s about trust, it’s about being authentic, it’s about communicating your vision but also at the same time listening to what employees have to say,” Groysberg says.

Talk, Inc. highlights the case of the Indian company Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd., which at the turn of the twenty-first century launched an effort to develop a new vision statement. Rather than keeping the effort confined to the C-suite, Hindustan held an extensive series of “vision workshops” where employees at all levels of the company were invited to share their thoughts.

A typical vision workshop included about 20 people and lasted three days. HPCL is a Fortune Global500 company employing more than 11,000 people, so it took years to complete the workshops. But by the end of the process, “almost every person felt that the company vision was his or her own vision,” Groysberg says.

INTERACTIVITY: Once some intimacy is established, it’s important to keep the conversation flowing. “It’s not just that one person is both talking and listening, it means that there is a real sort of back and forth where the act of listening actually changes what you think and say,” Slind explains. “As your company gets larger, that gets more difficult. But one of the ways to do it is by using technology.”

The book provides a quick overview of the social technology that helps global corporate communication mimic personal conversation: internal blogs (in which leaders share their thoughts and employees have a chance to comment), wikis (which enable collaboration on corporate databases), online communities (which help far-flung employees find like-minded colleagues), Twitter (which lets employees broadcast information widely, both internally and externally), networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn (which enable information sharing among a particular group), video sharing (YouTube and the like), and web-enabled video chat (which help to mimic in-person communication).

Global computer networking giant Cisco Systems, for example, uses its own TelePresence videoconferencing technology to simulate in-person meetings among its ranks—more than 6,200 executives and some 72,000 employees in total. “You really forget that you’re speaking across a fiber-optic cable,” says Slind, who has observed videoconferences at the San Jose, California-based company. “You feel like you’re sitting across from this person.”

Slind hastens to add that technology is only as effective as those deploying it. “Interactivity isn’t just about technology,” he says. “It’s equally important to build an interactive culture.”

INCLUSION: In organizational conversation, inclusion means giving employees a chance to help tell a company’s story. Ceding a measure of control over communication to employees comes with the obvious risk of uncontrolled messaging, but the authors report that the rewards of inclusion often outweigh the risks.

A traditional command-and-control company will filter a bunch of top-down messages through the communications department. But the book recommends a more organic approach. Sales teams can share success stories from the field via public video blogs, which journalists and customers may consider more authentic and more useful than slick marketing material. Furthermore, besides meeting with sales teams, customers might have a chance to meet with the no-nonsense engineers who actually created the technology.

Talk, Inc. discusses a project at EMC, a Hopkinton, Massachusetts-based storage networking company with more than 40,000 employees. In 2009, the company employees produced a book about the lives of working mothers at the company, gathering personal essays by 97 women at EMC (and one essay by a man). “It bubbled up organically,” Groysberg says. “And in that way the message they created was more compelling than a marketing campaign. It’s helping the company to recruit women, which creates a great competitive advantage. And internally, it has served to engage employees by letting them become content creators. That’s an example of being inclusive and allowing people to have voice. And what we find is that that fundamentally will drive engagement. And engagement will drive more effort. And effort will drive individual performance, and subsequently that will drive organizational performance.”

INTENTIONALITY: While the goal of organizational conversation is to draw on the characteristics of a talk between friends, it must always have an agenda—and a leader must always have a goal in mind. Otherwise it might take the form of talk just for the sake of talking. The goal may be to ensure that all the employees understand the company’s competitive strategy, or it may be to ask every employee to help shape that strategy. But there must be a goal, and the leader should use conversation to achieve that goal.

“Even if you can’t control everything anymore you still are the leader,” Slind says. “You still have responsibility for setting the tone and setting the direction. And that’s what intentionality is about. As you’re planning a conversation, you need to make sure that it’s in alignment with your company’s strategic goals. And if it’s done well, the power of communication can support those goals.”

The authors note that establishing a culture of conversation won’t always mean hitting each of the four “I’s,” but stress that these elements “tend to reinforce each other” to create a highly iterative process in which good ideas have a chance not only to be heard but to be developed as well.

“A productive conversation is a source of sustainable competitive advantage,” Groysberg says. “We find that if you can have good conversations in a company, you can actually achieve a lot.”

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