When he knocked at my door asking for a few minutes, the resentment rushed from head to toe. I was gleefully buried in a budget spreadsheet, playing the annual game to beat the system, keep everyone on staff and avoid layoffs. “Can’t he see I’m busy?” I thought while slowly turning a fragment of my attention to him. (The rest was stuck in the computer screen, where my identity as the “spreadsheet queen of the universe” resided.) He would have had to be dull – and he wasn’t – to miss the fact that he was dealing with a half a boss in that moment. Soon we were deep in conversation, bouncing ideas back and forth on how to solve a sticky problem, the specifics of which I’ve long since forgotten.
What I do remember from that conversation is the breakthrough in my thinking that day, as he had my full attention in solving this sticky problem – guilt free. Surprisingly, I was enjoying our challenging conversation. More importantly, I laid down the “guilt” of ignoring the budget spreadsheet. Having this conversation WAS my job at that moment. (And seriously, how was I to be an effective leader with my head constantly buried in "work"?) During our intense session, somewhere in the back of my mind, I realized something that changed my approach to leadership for the rest of my life. It went something like this: “My job is not spreadsheets and project plans; this is my job - having conversations.” Little did I know how much that mental pivot would become the cornerstone of my approach to leadership, and eventually change the trajectory of my career.
Within a week of that meeting, I asked another member of my team to take on preparing the budget for my review. This was a developmental assignment for that person that eventually led to new and better things for him. I began looking away from my computer screen (let me tell you, this was very difficult) and making time for critical conversations.
In the many years since that mental pivot, I have come to recognize that the DNA of leadership resides in conversation. It’s not that leaders never do the actual “work” of the organization. They do. However, for leadership to occur, conversation is essential. There are a variety of conversations that leaders are carrying on all the time. Awareness and deliberation around those conversations makes them more effective.
Most leaders understand their role in managing resources. The best leaders recognize the powerful resource of conversation. Some of the conversations we have as leaders are like adding water and nutrients to the soil in order to grow a bountiful garden. They are necessary, yet sometimes neglected. Others are more action-driven, like asking people to take on assignments, holding them accountable (now there’s a rich set of conversations for you) and making decisions. These conversations correlate to the harvest. Anyone who has ever farmed or gardened recognizes that the quality of the harvest starts early with soil preparation, well before planting. Throughout the growing season, farmers contend with a series of controllables and uncontrollables. Master farmers and gardeners utilize a wide range of actions to deliver an abundant yield, working with the climate and variables in their part of the world. Farmers are acutely aware that in order to reap abundantly, they must first provide resources – ie, they till, nourish, sow, and water wisely. (Not to mention weed, prune, mulch and so forth.) A lot goes into generating a good harvest!
The analogy works well for leadership, because so much of what makes a great "harvest" of results happens well before the money hits the income statement. All too often, leaders neglect to cultivate and set the conditions for growth. Conversation infuses resources into the organization, and ultimately impacts the quality of the results. These conversations either add something to the system or take it out. Every conversation you have sets into motion a different impact to the system – and not having certain conversations can also impact your long-term effectiveness. Think back to that “tiny” conversation I had so many years ago that set into motion an entirely different approach to leading my team.
Take a look at your world. What types of conversations you are having on a regular basis? What conversations are you avoiding? What makes one conversation go well and another get off track? What conversations have you started and then failed to carry forward? Have you made your own distinction between conversations that generate action vs ideas? Or those that feed or starve relationships? How does your state impact the mood of any given conversation?
Becoming mindful of the different conversations that cultivate a business can take your leadership game to a completely new level.
Lynn Carnes accelerates change and unleashes leadership performance in organizations, especially in context of challenges without easy answers. She loves to hear about how your experiments with these ideas turn out. To contact her or share your experiences email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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