As a business coach, much of my work centers on guiding leaders through the wonderful, wacky world of human thinking and behavior, both of those they lead and their own. Dealing with financial stuff is easy. It’s math. Spend less than you bring in and there will be profit. Revenue projections and budgets are mathematical assumptions that we fondly refer to as “wild-ass guesses.” But it’s the leader’s thinking and behavior that brings the numbers and profits to life. System and procedure design is easy too, but it’s getting people to buy into and live the change that tests one’s ability to lead. And to truly become a No-Compromise Leader, you must master and engage in “the conversation.”
The dictionary defines the word “conversation” as the informal exchange of ideas by spoken word. Ah … the spoken word. People, one on one or in groups, exchanging their ideas, points of view, excitement, concerns and frustrations. There is a sense of shared liberation to be able to put everything on the table for discussion and resolution. In every way, the conversation is the single most powerful tool in every leader’s toolbox.
Here are ten no-compromise lessons to master and engage in the conversation:
- It’s about understanding: Leadership is about guiding people to a better tomorrow. But your definition of a better tomorrow may not be right for everyone. Engaging in conversation means acquiring a deeper understanding of the dreams and motivations of those you lead. Simultaneously, in the process of conversation you provide deeper understanding of your own dreams and motivations to your people. The deeper this mutual understanding goes, the deeper the mutual trust becomes. A leader that puts constraints on conversation – or avoids it entirely – is more of a dictator and taskmaster than a leader of people.
- Vision drift: Visions are pretty awesome and empowering when they’re new and fresh. But visions can and will drift as time passes and the inevitable obstacles pop up. People begin to question the journey, even if they’re on the right path, and if the vision is really achievable in the first place. Conversations are the most effective deterrent for vision drift.
- Clarity and clarification: People support and fight for what they understand and believe in. In almost every case, achieving that level of clarity requires consistent and often repeated conversations on the “why, what, how and when” of what needs to occur. The more conversations you have, the more focused your team becomes on achieving the right outcomes. You can refer to conversations as meetings, huddles or one on one’s … it doesn’t matter – just as long as the “exchange of ideas” element exists. Remember, engaging people doesn’t mean pummeling them with instructions, goals and to-do’s.
- It’s happening anyway: If you’ve been avoiding conversations, here is a little dose of reality – they’re happening anyway. The problem is that you’re not included and the content of those conversations is likely headed in the wrong direction or, even worse, feeding toxicity and dysfunction. Leaders lead and orchestrate the conversation. If you’re spending too much time working in your business, chances are you have lost control of the conversations … and that’s probably why your company is springing leaks.
- Tough will only get tougher: Avoiding a tough conversation today only gives you a tougher conversation to deal with tomorrow. Every leader has one of those tough conversations just waiting to happen. Take a deep breath and get it off your plate so you can move forward. Remember, tough conversations mean there is “drag” in your company. Your job is to create “lift”, leaving room for your business to grow.
- Keeping it open: Exchanging ideas means being open and respectful to the ideas and points of view of those that you lead. In listening to your employees, you may even discover a better way to accomplish a task or goal. But you will never have an open conversation and exchange of ideas if you DO NOT listen. People need to trust that their voices will be heard. It’s not a conversation if your voice is the only one sounding out. Listen. Learn. Understand. Appreciate.
- Keeping it safe: Tough conversations only achieve resolution if it is safe for the employee to get his or her concerns on the table. Tough conversations are tough enough. Adding fear of confrontation into the already stressful mix can blow up the conversation and lead to a bad ending. The best strategy is to ask permission to address some tough stuff. I’ve never had an employee say, “No, I prefer you don’t.” Doing so sets the seriousness of the conversation. You also want to keep assuring the employee that the intent is to end the conversation with a resolution that both parties can live with and feel good about.
- Leadership boundaries: As the leader, you are in a different place with different responsibilities than your employees. Simply put, it’s difficult to be both a friend and a leader at the same time. If you venture too far into being a friend, it can blur your effectiveness when you need your leadership voice to be heard. It can also cloud your judgment when tough decisions need to be made that you know will not be received well by your “friends.” This is often the cause of unintentional, culture-damaging “double standards.” I’m not suggesting that you can’t be friends with your employees. I am merely emphasizing that you must retain your perspective – you ARE the leader and there are certain lines that are dangerous to cross.
- Never too late: If there is anyone in your company that is long overdue for some appreciation directly from you … have that conversation. If there is an employee that seems to have defected to the dark side … have that conversation. If someone on your team feels that he or she was overlooked for an opportunity or took the blame for something that was not entirely his or her fault … have that conversation. It’s never too late to acknowledge, appreciate, give explanation, regain trust or apologize.
- Relentlessly communicate: Relentless communication is the responsibility of all leaders. You are the voice of the company. Your company speaks through you. You are the keeper and protector of the vision. When your voice goes silent or is seldom heard, your people and your company are leaderless. Chaos replaces clarity. Dysfunction infects your culture. It’s amazing that something as simple as a conversation can prevent all that. All you have to do is let “the informal exchange of ideas” that we call “conversation” transform ordinary into extraordinary.
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