Are Your Conversations Worth Having?

conversations

Leadership Conversations

Conversations are a critical part of conducting business, of leading teams, of interacting with others.

Despite their obvious importance, how often do we think about them as a crucial skill?

Imagine if everyone on your team became exceptional at having meaningful conversations. Do you think it would translate to more wins? I’m certain of it, and that’s why I thoroughly enjoyed reading a new book by Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres. The authors packed so much wisdom and experience into Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement that you will find yourself referring back to it as an essential conversation reference guide.

Jackie Stavros is a professor at Lawrence Technological University; Appreciative Inquiry strategic advisor at Flourishing Leadership Institute; and an associate at Taos Institute. Cheri Torres is a Senior Consultant with NextMove and Partner at Innovation Partners International.

I recently spoke with Jackie and Cheri about their work.

 

“We live in worlds our conversations create.” -David Cooperrider

 

The Power of a Good Conversation

Talk about the power of a good conversation.

Torres: Actually, conversation is powerful, period, whether it’s a good one or a bad one. A bad conversation can turn a good day sour, influencing interactions for hours to come. A good conversation can brighten your day and propel you into high performance and a sense of elation. When you think about it, everything arises from conversation. We’re either carrying on an internal dialogue or engaged with others, each conversation influencing what’s possible in the next moment. Conversations influence our health, wellness, happiness, relationships, performance, and what’s possible.

 

“Sometimes the greatest adventure is simply a conversation.” -Amadeus Wolf

 

With their importance, why do conversations not seem to get enough attention in business?

Torres: Conversations are such an integral part of functioning in community that we take them for granted. Until recently, there was nothing drawing our attention to their importance. Research in the field of neurophysiology, however, is showing that conversations are integral to our capacity to access the executive center of our brain, the pre-fontal cortex, where higher order thinking, creativity, trust, good decision making, and the ability to connect are possible. Conversations that trigger fear or uncertainly stimulate the release of cortisol, epinephrine, and testosterone, shutting down access to the pre-frontal cortex and stimulating fight, flight, freeze, or appease. A good conversation has the power to shift the brain from threat to safety, simulating a whole different set of hormones—oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. These hormones help us reconnect, open up to what others have to say, and rekindle trust. Further research in positive psychology corresponds, showing that positivity in the workplace builds resiliency, high performance, innovation, and collaboration. Organizations that have taken this research to heart and have shifted leadership and management practices are discovering the amazing power of a great conversation – a conversation worth having.

 

Contrast a destructive versus an affirmative conversation. What are the effects of a destructive conversation? How long do they last?

Torres: In our book, in Chapter 2: What Kind of Conversations Are You Having, we classify four different kinds of conversations. All interactions either add-value or they devalue people and situations, and all conversations are either inquiry-based or statement-based.  If your questions devalue a person or situation, we refer to those kinds of conversations as “critical conversations.” If you are telling and devaluing others, we call those “destructive.”  Critical and destructive conversations typically trigger a threat response in others, and we just spoke about how that impacts us. The impact of such conversations can last a long time, long after the cortisol has left the system.  The reason why? Our memory stores our experience; this person is recognized as unsafe. This of course inhibits working well together.

On the other hand, if you are telling and adding value, we refer to those interactions as “affirmative conversations.” Acknowledging strengths, complementing a job well done, advocating for someone or something are examples of affirmative conversations. If you are asking questions that add value or generate value, we call those conversations worth having. Affirmative conversations will shift the brain from distrust to trust; conversations worth having will broaden and deepen that shift allowing people to bring their full value to relationships in the workplace, at home, and/or in communities.

 

“Your conversations help create your world. Speak of delight, not dissatisfaction. Speak of hope, not despair. Let your words bind up wounds, not cause them.” -Tao Te Ching

 

What is appreciative inquiry and how does it relate to communication?

A Digital Wake Up Call

digital darwinism

Digital is Everything

 

“Digital isn’t a thing, it’s everything.” That’s the first line I read on the back cover of Tom Goodwin’s new book, Digital Darwinism: Survival Of The Fittest In The Age Of Business Disruption.

That’s the type of attention-getting line that speaks to the massive transformation in today’s organizations.

Change or become extinct is a powerful message.

Tom is the EVP, Head of Innovation for Zenith Media. His role is to understand new technology, behaviors and platforms and ideate and implement solutions for clients that take advantage of the new opportunities these make possible. He was also voted the #1 voice in Marketing by LinkedIn with over 580,000 followers on the platform. An industry provocateur and commentator on the future of marketing and business, Tom recently wrote Digital Darwinism as a wakeup call to traditional businesses.

I recently spoke with him about his book.

 

““Digital isn’t a thing, it’s everything.” -Tom Goodwin

 

The subtitle of your book is “Survival of the Fittest in the Age of Business Disruption.” What defines the fittest?

I believe the fittest companies are those with the balance of a solid business plan for today and for the future. This can either be because they’ve established a defendable niche for now and ahead (like Amazon or Tesla) or because they have a team and culture that is able to adapt to the changing marketplace. Good examples of this are Facebook, Netflix, and Google. Fitness both in nature and business is about agility and the ability to change as the world does, but also about the quality of the business model today. There are too many companies that are widely celebrated, like Dollar Shave Club or Movie Pass, that offer hockey-stick user growth and happy customers, but don’t appear to have a semblance of a business model that can ever make money.

 

“The fittest companies are those with the balance of a solid business plan for today and for the future.” -Tom Goodwin

 

Innovate with Purpose

Mature companies often have a huge desire to innovate and launch various initiatives. What are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve seen them make in their pursuit of innovation?

Most innovation failures come from companies who do one of two things wrong. The main one is not going deep enough. They offer surface level improvements on the façade of a deeply troubled foundation. Retailers who need to close stores or entirely rethink distribution models or procurement flows, end up making a store in San Jose with a smart mirror, as it’s way faster and cheaper and offers distractions. Or car companies that celebrate apps where you can start engines remotely, while they are behind on electric propulsion. The issue is that most CEOs don’t have the time or thirst for risk to make proper changes.

The other issue is innovation with no sense of purpose. It’s adding a chatbot because your boss read about them one day. It’s an airline launching a mood-sensing blanket that gets press. It’s the VR experience to try to get promoted. We need to know why we are innovating and maximize against that.

 

“There are too many companies that are widely celebrated that offer hockey-stick user growth and happy customers, but don’t appear to have a semblance of a business model that can ever make money.” -Tom Goodwin

 

Common Traits of Disrupters

Never Stop Learning

never stop learning

Stay Relevant, Reinvent Yourself, and Thrive

 

Almost every conference I have attended in the last ten years has highlighted the rapid changes that we are experiencing in every aspect of society. Companies need to evaluate digital futures, new technologies, and global strategies. Individuals need to develop plans to keep developing their skills.

How do we best deal with this constant pace of change?

Brad Staats is an associate professor of operations at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. His new book, Never Stop Learning: Stay Relevant, Reinvent Yourself, and Thrive, provides the framework to help all of us become dynamic learners. He says that, “If we fail to learn, we risk becoming irrelevant.”

He also says that we aren’t so great at learning.

I recently spoke with him about his extensive research into learning.

 

“One of the most powerful ways we can learn from others is to ask, ‘What do you think?’ and be open to the answer.” -Bradley Staats

 

Learning is a Key Differentiator

Why is learning more important today than in past generations?

Learning has always been a key competitive differentiator. What has changed is that things are moving faster and increasingly we are in a winner take all (or at least most) environment. There are four factors I’d highlight that are driving these changes. The first is routinization. Through the use of technology (information and otherwise) we can knock out repeatable tasks. That means our attention can turn to new things where we can innovate. If one looks at job changes in the US over the last 30 years, the data reveals that routine jobs are flat and growth has only occurred in the non-routine settings.

jobs

The second driver is specialization. Knowledge around us is increasing, often exponentially. It is estimated a physician would need to read 29 hours a day to stay current on all the necessary knowledge. So we are forced to pick areas to dig in. The third driver is globalization. In the 1990’s, in particular, the global economy opened up as countries like India, Russia, Brazil and China flooded the global labor market with talented individuals. Success is no longer a local affair, it is a global one. Finally, we have digitization. We can capture knowledge digitally and share it around the world. All of these factors mean that great products and services can quickly capture markets and squeeze out others—so we have to learn if we are going to stay relevant. As Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, has said, “Ultimately, the ‘learn-it-all’ will always do better than the ‘know-it-all.’”

 

“Whatever we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.” -Otto Rank

 

Why are we so bad at learning?

How to Seek, Seed, and Scale Innovation

change

The Change Maker’s Playbook

Innovation is dynamic, iterative, and even messy – but with the vast problems facing the world, and opportunities to harness people’s creativity, passion, and desire to make an impact, there has never been greater potential to make a dent in as-yet unsolved economic, social and other issues. Leadership qualities, not always and not simply technology, are the essential ingredients.

I recently spoke with Amy J. Radin, author of The Change Maker’s Playbook: How to Seek, Seed and Scale Innovation in Any Company. Amy is a nationally recognized Fortune 100 Chief Marketing and Information Officer.

 

“Purpose defines what you stand for and why your business exists.” -Amy J. Radin

 

The Power of Purpose

I love this line in your new book: “Purpose defines what you stand for and why your business exists.” Tell us more about the power of purpose and why it’s so important to change makers.

Purpose defines the marketplace problem the change maker wants to solve. It’s why they pursue an innovation.  They see the need to create something new, to fix something they see as really broken.

Purpose is grounded in emotion, but it’s far from touchy-feely. Purpose:

  • Focuses everyone on unifying beliefs, makes collaboration the norm, and aims resources at the vision and nothing else.
  • Minimizes the corrosive effect of internal politics — everyone is committed to the same point on the horizon. Purpose is an energy booster.
  • Sets the goal post on achieving aspirations to meet real market needs. Of course, financial results matter, but the purpose-driven team delivers financial impact and sets itself up to meet broader stakeholder needs.

 

“Purpose means knowing what you stand for, why you want to exist.” -Amy J. Radin

 

Resourcefulness is a key behavior of change makers. How should leaders encourage resourcefulness?

Resourceful leaders are those who can find a path forward no matter what. Doing so means they are making progress even though they have what can look like severe resource shortages.

Much of anyone’s resourcefulness comes from an ability to help everyone in their orbit to be more resourceful.

First, be a role model of resourcefulness behaviors.  My favorite example of all time is one I uncovered while doing the research for The Change Maker’s Playbook: Drew Lakatos co-founded ActiveProtective, a company working on an innovative device – think of it as the wearable equivalent of an inflatable air bag — to attack the growing medical and social crises caused by millions of seniors’ falling every year in this country. He had purpose and passion, but lacked capital.  So, he went around to junkyards one Saturday morning, and extracted non-bloody air bags from wrecked cars. Then he combined these with bicycle tire inner tubes, working with his local tailor to create components of early proof-of-concept designs – for a few dollars apiece. They were convincing enough to win critical support to get to the next steps.

Second, when assessing potential hires, listen for stories of how they have demonstrated resourcefulness in their lives. If you don’t hear evidence of real tenacity, move on.

Third, be open-minded about how things are done, not just what is getting done. Being resourceful means finding and supporting non-obvious ways to accomplish milestones and achieve goals.

 

“Resourceful leaders treat others with respect and value people as people, and as a result inspire and attract others to enable their purpose.” -Amy J. Radin

 

Fourth, promote a culture where seeking help is a mark of leadership and strength, not a sign of weakness. I see organizations where people are afraid that they will be fired if they admit ignorance. I see cultures punishing people who admit they don’t know something or would like help. These are environments where innovation cannot ever be successful.

 

“Resourceful leaders are those who can find a path forward no matter what.” -Amy J. Radin

 

Lessons from Edison

How Leaders Create Engagement and Competitive Advantage

purpose

How Leaders Create Engagement

A decent product at a fair price with good customer service may once have been enough. No longer. The bar has moved. Employees and customers want organizations to do some social good along the way.

My friend and bestselling author John Izzo is out with a new book, co-authored by Jeff Vanderwielen: The Purpose Revolution: How Leaders Create Engagement and Competitive Advantage in an Age of Social Good. The book is full of examples and ideas to help you move your organization to one that is infused with purpose.

I recently asked John to share more about his research and work in this area.

 

“Winning in the purpose revolution requires authenticity.” -John Izzo

 

4 Forces Driving Change

You say that there is a revolution happening right now and ignoring it will send your company to irrelevance. What is it and what forces are driving it?

The revolution is a desire among employees, customers and investors to leverage social good with their choices. This is a revolution of AND not OR. Employees want everything they have always wanted, but they also want a job that gives them a sense of purpose in a company they feel is doing good in the world. Customers want products that excite them at a good price, but they also want to leverage good with those choices—and certainly buy things that cause no harm. Investors was a return on money, but the fastest growing funds are those that also promise social impact.

In an age of commoditization, the marketplace is filled with many similar products, and purpose is a way for companies to create brand differentiation based on values, not just product.

What’s driving the revolution are four primary trends. The Millennials are now a global force with a strong set of values around creating social good and having meaning in their work. The boomers are moving into the “legacy” stage of life where the impact they leave starts to compete with ego. The rising middle class in the developing world is another major driver, as people rise out of poverty, they are able to think about the social good in their choices. Finally, business is both blamed for some of the world’s biggest challenges but also increasingly seen as the key to addressing those same issues through corporate social responsibility.

 

“Purpose is a way for companies to create brand differentiation based on values, not just product.” -John Izzo

 

Connect Purpose to Contribution

How do leaders help employees connect purpose to work contribution?

The first step is to have a clearly articulated compelling purpose that is authentic. Starbucks’ purpose is to “inspire the human spirit one cup of coffee at a time” while 3M’s is to “advance every life and improve every business while using science to solve the world’s greatest challenges” (like sustainability).

The second step is to drive job purpose more than job function. Focus on the real impact jobs and teams make. Have every person identify the purpose of their job and the same for every team. Consistently tell stories of how your company makes a real difference. Bring in customers to tell their stories, and create space for employees to do the same. One large bank we worked with started having a standing agenda item in every branch: “How did we make a difference for a client since last time we met?” In the branches that did it, engagement went up 23% and sales went up 18%!

 

Move Purpose to Center Stage