Preface to This Blog: Most perspectives on organizational and leadership change propose that communication occurs in the context of change. Here, I invert that perspective and propose, instead, that communication—in the form of conversations—is the context in which change occurs. In other words, communication/conversation is the tool to successfully execute change, not a result or by-product of change. The promise of leadership conversation is that there’s a new and better way to lead an organization now that command-and-control is at best futile, and at worst, and probably more commonly, destructive. Satya Nadella is indicative of the best. Kudos to Microsoft for their choice. The blog below elaborates and extrapolates.
“If they engage with conversation in the right way,” Harvard’s Groysberg and Slind write, “they have the potential to unleash organizational energy of a sort that no leader could ever command.” That’s why the conversation between Adam Bryant and Microsoft’s new CEO, Satya Nadella, grabbed my attention. And though an interview is not the kind of dialog that is inevitably revealing, the uniqueness of Nadella’s response can only be indicative of many highly astute leadership conversations.
Social science research finds that organizational mindsets form the boundaries of possible change within an organization. Proposed changes that do not fit within existing paradigms—including corporate leadership--simply do not ...
Think of the form as a container for idea and motivational exchange. If you pick up a detective story, you may not know until the last page “who done it,” but you always know before you start reading exactly the kind of thing that’s going to happen. Or, if you hear a leader dropping a story into a presentation, you know that it’ll take the shape of beginning, middle and end. A single form recurs in different places and times and so it develops its own credibility. In so doing, it creates expectations for the listener.
Conversations are more complex than presentational speeches because the communication is two- or multi-directional (i.e., back-and-forth) versus a one-way street. Yet, by listening closely, these complexities can be simplified by identifying the point/counterpoint format underlying it all.
Counterpoint is a musical term dating from the 16th century referring to harmonious melodies in a composition that harken back to the original melody (the point) that remains constant throughout. The counterpoint must begin and end in perfect consonance with the original tune. Dissonance is never permitted in the format of point/counterpoint. Similarly, dissonance within the organization would doom a proposed change.
Given this background, the Nadella interview is an illuminating and fascinating conversation which follows the point/counterpoint model on numerous occasions. In other words, Nadella always stays closely within the organizational paradigm. Therefore, he never creates organizational dissonance.
Nadella represents Bill Gates as an “analytically rigorous person” who’s always well-prepared and able to find a logical flaw in another’s thinking. This fundamental point sets up Nadella’s counterpoint. “But he’s actually quite grounded. You can push back on him. He’ll argue with you vigorously for a couple of minutes, and then he’ll be the first person to say, ‘Oh, you’re right.’” Nadella’s affinity with Gates demonstrates both his relationship control and his personality visibility, thus reaping in employees’ minds the positive and powerful legends surrounding Gates’ tenure. The use of the form here emphasizes his commitment to the past successes of the firm, affirming continuity and evoking a strong sense of security. Though he mentions his immediate predecessor, Steve Balmer, Nadella takes a strategically wise approach in emphasizing his relationship with Gates. The strategy limits the potential for rejection and blowback that many new CEOs face.
Nadella’s insight on maximizing the effectiveness of his leadership team is unusually knowledgeable and outside the normal understanding of teamwork. Beginning with the basic format, he says “The framing for me is all about getting people to commit and engage in an authentic way, and for us to feel that energy as a team.” With that fundamental statement of mode, he initiates the counterpoint: “I’m not evaluating them on what they say individually. None of them would be on this team if they didn’t have some fantastic attributes.” Then he tweaks the basic format into counterpoint: “I’m only evaluating us collectively as a team. Are we able to authentically communicate, and are we able to build on each person’s capabilities to the benefit of our organization?” This brief counterpoint suggests that Nadella has spent much of his work life interacting about team philosophy. His instinct and insight are profoundly progressive, reflecting an awareness of the latest studies in teamwork. It also inherently rejects the traditional notions of competition and one-upmanship so often destructive of leadership teams.
But it’s his operating vision that reflects his extraordinary brilliance while fitting squarely within the leadership conversation forms of point/counterpoint. Point: “Culturally, I think we have operated as if we had the formula figured out, and I was all about optimizing, in its various constituent parts, the formula.” Counterpoint: “Now it is about discovering the new formula.” Nadella cleverly uses the language of “formula” in both statements, emphasizing similarity. Consciously or unconsciously, like the previous statements, it works within the same “rhetorical form.” It’s not that he is especially aware of the form and plans to use it. But when those who are more practiced at language, communication and conversation, like Nadella, determine how to talk in a leadership conversation, they gravitate to a specific and recurring form into which they insert their language and ideas. Sometimes the counterpoint is little more than a clarification of the tradition. But on other occasions it affirms the original tradition while adapting it to the new leadership and the present.
Leaders who converse like Nadella are effective because they use a scalpel rather than a cleaver. And in the information-heavy, cross-cultural, global dynamics of today’s organizations where power is shared, the weight of the cleaver is destructive, not powerful or effective. The rhetorical form of point/counterpoint provides a superb resource for understanding and engaging in leadership conversations, with accuracy. . . Precisely.
Flickr photo: kimjakes482