In a groundbreaking article, Michael Slind and Harvard’s Boris Groysberg come very close to a conclusion my colleague and I have been analyzing for the past two years. Focusing solely on leadership, they emphasize what they define as an “emerging truth": Leadership is conversation.” But they didn’t push the envelope far enough. Building upon leading-edge research and personal experience, we conclude that the real business of business is conversation.
Conventional business action and thinking are highly situational. That’s what you learn in business school. So you automatically pay close attention to the environment, culture, business processes, senior executives and organizational structure. Those, you’re told, are the limitations and constraints upon your future. From that perspective, conversation is, at best, an ancillary tool for achieving one’s personal and organizational objectives. In other words, this conventional and very limiting model argues that the path to success and leadership requires you to bend your conversational strategies to the situation.
In contrast, we turn this out-dated paradigm on its head. Indeed, this constant, overweening focus on the limitations and constraints of the situation is a program for failure. In stark contrast, we view language and conversation as the primary means by which an individual or organization succeeds or fails. Language is never innocent or neutral. Indeed, in business, as in life, language is highly subversive. It makes change inevitable. For the willing and focused professional language is the power for social possibility, creativity and innovation.
Conversation as creative force
Over years of experience, I’ve worked with numerous clients who were limited--and underperforming--because they were blind to the resources and opportunities provided by the conversational paradigm. There are examples from all the business disciplines, but this one from sales is typical. Hired to coach an architectural director in client relationship skills, I found him fearful, defensive, and imprisoned by the difficulties of his situation. Twenty years ago, I’d have worked with those personal, behavioral issues. Instead, I focused immediately on his conversational interactions with the potential client, guiding him in the development of interactional scripts. I explained that “initiating conversations” should emphasize, authentically AND transparently, that he faces the same kind of problems as the client. His conversation should share stories that make his values clear, and that he’s really not what the client expects—a salesperson.
In this sales example, situations such as physical environment, a project’s financial demands and the limitations of the economy are secondary. Here, the linguistically-astute salesperson has a single initial objective: conversations that can develop a social contract of mutual problem solving, a contract where authenticity, transparency and trust are at the forefront.
It is the conversational paradigm, supported by situational actions, that best achieves personal and organizational objectives. And that is true, no matter your profession, business or discipline.
Why does the conversational perspective work so well?
“Initiating conversations,” for example, focus upon what we call a “replacement strategy.” Replacement strategies dislodge a client’s logic and replace it with a deeper understanding of the clients’ business, revamping their thinking, and taking control of the sales conversation. Such conversational assertiveness with clients and bosses may include even potentially controversial views. These conversations make it possible to rethink one’s business, deconstruct it, change it as times change and even joke about it, granting us power to deconstruct our limited worlds, create new thoughts and opportunities that situations can never limit. Certainly, these conversations require a degree of verbal competency. But uniquely, they also free us from both personal and organizational constraints.
There are numerous advantages to organizational conversations, what we call “organizational rhetoric.” Put differently, we find that in today’s economy business folk win not because they’ve mastered business situations, but because they’ve mastered the conversational perspective and methodology. And so in the near future, we’ll break out these advantages, illuminate them with experiences from past projects, back them with piles of rigorous, intriguing studies, and make very practical suggestions for exploiting them.
To tease you a bit, we’ve listed the advantages of the conversational perspective below, knowing full well that over time you’ll find them exceptionally rewarding.
- Situational expectations no longer constrain the smart conversationalist.
- Situational threats go by the wayside.
- Conversations provide unlimited means for reframing dominant logics
- Conversations can shed light on issues that situational constraints might not permit.
- Conversations offer solutions well outside the box.
- Conversations significantly extend opportunities in adaptation, creativity and innovation.
- Intentional conversations (rhetoric) are the driving mechanism of all change.
- The employee and manager have far more control over their reputation and identity.
The best conversationalists succeed because they keep chipping away at a huge pile of dull, interesting, fun, rewarding and often ridiculous chores. The good news is that extensive studies in the fields of neuroscience and deliberate practice place no limitations on anyone’s potential. And we wish that we could promise you that the path will be easy. Despite the horseshit spewed out by too many coaching gurus, there are no shortcuts and no magic bullets. But the payoff for those who build their conversational toolkit is well worth the work.
One of those business thinkers way ahead of the conversational curve is Karl Weick. He summarizes what we’re doing this way: Rich conversational vocabularies matter. They matter a great deal. They provide unique options for action and reveal opportunities that otherwise might be perceived as threats.
Flickr photo: Allensma