The Power of Conversational Leadership

Communication is always a challenge, especially in multinational corporations. Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind discuss why it makes sense to adopt the principles of face-to-face conversation in organizational communication.
by Carmen Nobel

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.

“Having communication that goes bottom-up is just as important as having communication that goes top-down.”

"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."

Read an excerpt from Talk Inc.

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. article imageTalk, 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."

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.
    • Hiren Vyas
    • Supply Demand planning, ELC
    Very interesting. Applicable to what's happening in the organizations today.
    • Anonymous
    As it is rightly said that power of speech makes humans different from animals,same way the power of conversation makes companies different from others.......
    • Ernst Schnell
    • Region Technical Engineer, just changing
    Maybe taking the discussion beyond the executive and to the more operative level, I have come to see that no other form of communication in the business environment matches a conversation. While it does take more effort, the insight gleaned from a question asked face to face tends in my experience to be much richer than if posed by say email or public announcement. The power of immediate feedback, follow-up questions and discussion, the ability to digress and the reduced guards when talking vis-a-vis putting pen to paper (or its electronic equivalent) normally have me come out of the conversation with a lot more comprehensive picture.
    Not trying to tout other people's work and services, but in this context, the work of David Gurteen to employ conversation as a means of personalized, effective knowledge management in his Knowledge Cafes underlines this efficacy, even when not looking at it from a strategy point of view.
    • Chetan Dhruve
    • Author, Why Your Boss is Programmed to be a Dictator
    Power is all important in conversations. It's almost impossible to have genuine and honest bottom-up conversations if there is a power imbalance - it's difficult to "tell truth to power" for fear of retribution.

    This also reminds me of the article "Do I dare say something" (Harvard Working Knowledge, The article talks about "Latent Voice Episodes" - instances where people may not speak up, for fear of offending those higher up in the organization. In conventional top-down command-and-control structures, it's almost impossible for "bad news" conversations to swim upwards, against the currents of power.
    I've often heard managers say that "Managing people is not easy, given the boundaries of project estimates and time lines" and I quite wondered if the lack of communication was making it all the more difficult!
    For any sort of communication to be effective, it has to be almost always be two-way I believe and the art of management might lie in the effort behind creating that easy-space where people interact willingly and without much hurdles....
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    What Carmen Nobel says is absolutely true. Both bottom-up and top-down communication assumes importance for discussing issues as they arise, applying knowledge and experience of people seated across and reaching consensus. we do observe that in many companies people believe in sending emails even on routine matters and as a routine also
    to those seated and working close by. This is an avoidable waste of energy and time. Moreover, the written material may miss some points.
    Some important matters do need to be put in black and white and creation of records is called for.
    As a further simplification more and more use of phones would also make life easier.
    • Doug Flanders
    • Private consultnant
    It's not only for good leadership, in terms of members of an organisation having a common frame of reference, that communication is important. For every problem in an organisation we can be 95% certain its was lack of (sufficient) communication that caused it.
    • juan aguirre
    • Chair for Entrepreneurship, Universidad Latina Costa Rica
    Prof Groysberg comments are vry true and that also happens in academic institutions and government in particular in Latin America, the leadesrhip is going and the world in another. Internet is separating people, and e mails are not enough leadership has the responsability to communicate but we have a new generations that at times one feels that they are afraid to face their people.
    One can guess what is the fear about but are afraid to talk and that makes things even worst.
    • John O'Keeffe
    • Platoon Commander, United States Marine Corps
    This is a great article and I look forward to reading the book. I find it strikingly similar to the concepts we employ in the Marine Corps--straying, really, only in verbiage used.

    The big one is intentionality. We call it the commander's intent. Commander's intent is three parts--purpose, method, and the end state. Basically, why, how (without specifics) and what I want the battlefield to look like when the mission is accomplished. If this is clearly communicated then I can expect everything to be completed without any additional guidance. A failure to communicate this will result in a failure of the overall accomplishment of the mission.

    The other stuff, intimacy, interactivity, and inclusion can be accomplished with our "conversations"--or, as we call them, "monthly counselings"-- and our leadership principles and traits that we carry with us and take very seriously.

    Good read!
    • shadreck saili
    • UCT
    My experience has been that conversational leadership enhances the following
    1. Team work
    2. An environment of being appreciated
    3. Creativity as new ideas of what ever form are welcome.

    My view is that the informal talking -kind of -environment, necessitated by conversational leadership, creates an all rounder and continuous brainstorming exercises/sessions and everyone in the net work is kin to contribute their brains out because it is as interesting fora to be part to.
    • Said
    • Phd researcher, University of Glasgow Caledonian
    this book is really highlighting the role of feedback in the communication process.
    • Sheryl Andrews
    • Founder, Step by Step Listening
    I agree whole heartedly that as an organisation gets larger that it is important to keep the conversations happening. Likewise as the Commander mentions if you have a very clear outcome it is clearer for others to follow.

    I wonder if we are as a society losing the ability to really listen and hold productive discussions simply because we are of the belief constantly we don't have time. When in fact the lack of conversation I estimate is losing some corporate millions due to lack of understanding and buy in through out the organisation. Thanks for sharing
    • Chetan Dhruve
    • Author, Why Your Boss is Programmed to be a Dictator
    This is in response to the comment from John O'Keeffe, Platoon Commander, United States Marine Corps.

    John, I have a question. As you know, in the build up to the 2003 war on Iraq, America simulated the war in the biggest ever war games. Called the Millennium Challenge, these games were fought by the US forces on one side, and retired US marine Lt Gen Paul Van Riper and his small band of fighters on the other.

    Incredibly, Van Riper's side won. Riper apparently didn't focus on command and control, but said he was "in command and out of control". He only stated the intent of what needed to be done, and subordinates were expected to take their own initiative and not depend on orders. This sounds very similar to what you spoke about, ie commander's intent.

    Would you know if the change from "command-and-control" to "commander's intent" happened after the lessons of the Millennium Challenge were learnt?
    • Adjoa Acquaah-Harrison
    I have watched a few episodes of a TV program called "Undercover Boss, in which the CEO of a company goes undercover as a new employee or trainee in order to learn from direct personal experience, how random employees in the company feel about their jobs, management, and corporate culture. In every instance, the chief executive has come away with insights that are life-changing. The personal stories of the new friends they encounter drive home the lessons that transform how they govern, train, reward, promote, and empathize with employees down the totem pole that might never have appeared on their radars.

    Conversation is really urgent at all levels of human interactions. I look forward to reading Talk Inc. because I already like that the excerpt speaks to important subjects like inclusion, interactivity, and most of all, intentionality. Once we break things down and acknowledge that humanity should not be prohibitive, it can also be simplified by a saying that I love so much -- "There is a saying that people will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel." A good conversation feels so good, doesn't it? It validates.

    Adjoa Acquaah-Harrison
    • Mikki Swindon
    • Director, Mikki Swindon & Associates
    I enjoyed this insightful article and agree that organic simple communication with as many employees as possible is key to your employees understanding the vision and direction of an organisation. So often messages are delivered in a complex way by managers who have had many weeks and months of context and forget that the less senior employees may be hearing something for the first time. In this day and age we are too ready to hit the electronic button when the message can be delivered face to face.
    • Paul Nicholas
    • Director, Soul-Chaplain Consultancy
    Fascinating and powerful article and commentary - and very, very thought-provoking; thank you.
    As leadership is relational, conversation is its sine qua non - with no conversation there is no leadership - even self-leadership requires internal "conversations". Through conversations people make meaning together and create workable models of "reality". A principal function of leadership thus becomes - to varying degrees - the direction, control or influencing of conversations towards desired ends or new and more workable realities.
    • Anonymous
    Yes, exactly you are right. Communication is really important in top to bottom (direction and leading, etc) as well as bottom to top (schedling and time estimation ., etc), and peer to peer (getting right resource). Expecially inclusion (contents) very important in big organization, because we should understand, which is important and which is not, otherwise too much conflicts among all levels.

    M.Poomalai M.S., PMP
    • Nosap
    • Resourcerer
    Been about 10 years since I read something as silly as this. The best thing to do with any nonsense amalgam of the word 'leadership' and some trendy prefix or suffix, is to replace the word with another and see if the dross makes equal sense. 'Hairdressing' is my favorite.

    So, about conversational hairdressing, if any hairdresser has to read a book to learn about the value of people talking to each other, then they are not going to be much good at hairdressing!
    • Gagan
    • Specialist, Nokia Siemens Networks
    Yes, bottom-up conversation is very important in current corporate environment. In this bottom-up conversation approach, levels should also be skipped. It makes no sense if this approach only limited to level 1 or level 2 managers.
    • sanjeev
    Bottom - up communication constantly happens in large organisation in the form of operational reporting. However it assumes significance only when it can be taken beyond this paradigm and a sort of strategic intent built in to it. This is possible only when the manager is 'wise & magnanimous' enough to understand and accept that somebody at the bottom is capable of sensible thought. Needless to say most managers loose this over a period of time as they shift from field to corner offices. Its extremely important that all top level managers ensure some amount of field visibility through fieldwork. This also will ensure the intimacy part making the communication meaningful
    • Sam Chandar
    • CEO, GOF
    It has been rightly said that communication is the vehicle of thought; and thought, the seed of discovery and change. I would like to add one more 'I' to the above; and that is Integrity. When one opens up a conversation on a genuine note, a wholly new channel for energy transfer takes place. Like a current, as the conversation strengthens, deepens and creates a flow there can be so much learning, understanding and maturing of relationships, discovery of ideas and issues, higher level of commitment, empowerment..... a truly rich harvest! The caveat is that people should perceive that the intentions behind such conversations are honest, noble and uplifting. It is not so much in the 'feel good' factor as it is in the 'goodness' of it all!
    • Greg Basham
    • CEO, eeVoices Ltd
    Robert Denhardt states that 'if you want to know what is going on in an organization look where the money (budget) is going.' I have always long felt that if you really want to know what is going on in an organization - just listen to the conversations.

    Carmen Nobel set out a framework with some brilliant examples and criteria and should be a mandatory read for leaders and managers in any kind of organization that is interested in improvement without a lot of dollars.

    The vision example I have seen in some very good organizations where front line staff do reflect the values that their board and executive and marketing tell the public about.

    The stories of the working mothers is an equally brilliant example. I recall some years back when working in the executive of an auto insurer in Canada and the marketing folks featured our real employees in the TV and print media to get out message to insureds. We ran differing ads in the local markets and the branch managers could not believe the change in the claimants and customers they were seeing nor in the staff who were on cloud 9.
    • Cherri Holland
    • Partner, Cherri Holland & Associates
    This is what I call a partnership approach to business success. Maybe it is to do with our size of operation in New Zealand but the method described for the formulation of the Fortune 500 company vision is what we were doing in New Zealand back in the early 90s, in my practice anyway. It is the staff who run the business anyway and their thoughts and actions determine the profit, not executives who are vastly outnumbered. In my experience running a retail business, even the youngest staff did a superb job of optimising efficiency as it was expected of them and they understood the business model. But will executives believe others are smart too and will they commit to work with others in a partnership instead of over them, which has the operation functioning at the lowest common denominator?
    • Amina Tukur
    • Senior Officer, Government Agency
    I have realised that a lot of leaders rely on their assistants to pass most messages across. This usually is not healthy and brings about a lot of gossips and uncertainties.

    I wish our African leaders will talk more to their people than send others to deliver such messages