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Powerful Conversations: How High-Impact Leaders Communicate
All leaders talk, but it is what they say and how they say it that determines whether the group succeeds or fails.
Think about it: the leader’s most fundamental and most important job is to be in touch with those around him or her. Whether it is in the hallways or on the phone, in the middle of the workday or after hours, while delivering a performance review to a key employee or a yearly address to thousands of employees, leaders are involved in a constant series of conversations.
Through these encounters, whether brief and spontaneous or scheduled and structured, leaders try to use their time with colleagues, employees, customers, and others to reach a variety of ends. Grabbing a moment, the leader takes the opportunity to influence and direct a member of the sales staff. A weekly meeting becomes a chance to coach a manager and gather information about the department’s morale and its financial numbers. A quick e-mail checks on the progress of a research project and gives a boost of recognition and support to the team. During a strategy meeting, the leader negotiates next steps with division heads and outlines a coordinated approach. At a company awards ceremony, he or she tries to hammer home a message about values and goals. In short, the leader, through his or her conversations, aims to foster relationships, build support networks, and sharpen organizational focus.
Yet outcomes from conversations are too often unclear. Perceptions don’t always match. Influences are frequently not as profound as one would hope. Communication is generally a struggle with mixed, uncertain, and unpredictable results. Too much conversation is ad hoc and hinges on moods, energy levels, relationships, and personalities. Sometimes a leader is right on point. Sometimes he or she clicks and forges a new connection. Other times, the leader misses the mark. Either way, he or she pushes on, lining up the next meeting, setting up the next goal, responding to the latest need for clarification.
Communication is never easy. Inevitably, when a leader is driving change and dealing with conflicting agendas, some conversations provide a challenge that tests the bounds and skill of experience. During the heat of a difficult conversation, you need to fall back on a discipline. You need clear communication that advances agendas, promotes learning, and strengthens relationships. It’s the difference between achieving objectives and having everything fall apart—and the difference between winning and losing.
Imagine having to let a close friend know that he or she is off a project because of poor performance, yet wanting at the same time to preserve the strength of the relationship. Imagine having to make necessary structural changes to an organization, realigning roles and positions in ways that involve cuts in the workforce, yet wanting at the same time to bolster morale and organizational commitment. These are the difficult conversations that High-Impact Leaders face every single day, so what makes them different from any other leader?
High-Impact Leaders are the people who get results. They are the ones who make things happen. They are the leaders who are able to continually advance a clear agenda, get others to buy into it, and move an organization, a division, or a team forward. Being a High-Impact Leader has nothing whatsoever to do with title or rank, because High-Impact Leaders can be found up, down, and across any organization.
-Impact Leaders are the ones who cause no surprises. They are explicit, consistent, concise, and authentic. They sometimes have an abundance of charisma, but that is clearly not a prerequisite. More to the point, High-Impact Leaders are the ones who take charge wherever they are. They are the ones others want to follow. They are also the leaders whose teams others consistently want to join. When they move on to new roles or new territories, they do not travel alone. Others ask to go with them.
These conditions result because High-Impact Leaders use the technology of Powerful Conversations and then match what they say with what they do. Through Powerful Conversations, they develop openness, honesty, and clarity in order to get others to believe and share in their goals, to gain commitments, and to foster trust. And they prove they are worthy of that trust by delivering on their own commitments and by making results happen.
The link between Powerful Conversations and High-Impact Leaders lies in the relationship between two concepts I refer to as Say and Do. I have seen people skilled at the art of Powerful Conversations nevertheless fail as leaders because they fail to live up to their words. As a result, they never become High-Impact Leaders. I have never known a High-Impact Leader, however, who was not also skilled at Powerful Conversations, whether conscious of that designation or not. To be a High-Impact Leader, you have to be able to conduct Powerful Conversations on a consistent basis and live up to the outcomes of those conversations. Why is this important? It has to do with trust—without which conversations cannot progress toward the realization of commitments.
One of the most important functions of a Powerful Conversation is to create clarity, a critical success factor for building trust. I cannot tell you how frequently I have been involved in situations in which a leader, reflecting on problems that have arisen, says, “I can’t believe they thought I meant that. I never had any intention of doing that.” And the followers say something like, “It’s unbelievable. Our leader made a clear commitment to do this and now denies it was ever part of the agenda.” Both sides shake their heads. Barriers go up. Trust is reduced or nonexistent.
True clarity implies that a leader says exactly what he or she means in such a way that his or her statements are received as intended. This requires openness, honesty, and an active and careful tracking of wants, needs, and commitments. It furthermore requires that those clear statements be lived up to with demonstrated actions built on organizational trust.
High-Impact Leaders today lead in a better way because they recognize that the shortest path to achieving objectives is to build trust and gain clear commitments from others. Specifically, they engage in Powerful Conversations to uncover the wants and needs of others in order to understand what will motivate those people to join forces with the leader and live up to the commitments of a conversation. They skillfully orchestrate the Powerful Conversations in which they engage to make clear all parties understand the exact commitments that have been made. Then they check into those commitments and make sure through follow-up conversations that the commitments can be kept. They track the wants and needs of others and find ways to reinforce their own desire to understand the wants and needs of others, often through continued follow-up conversations. High-Impact Leaders do these things because they know that trust must exist if the leader is to achieve his or her agenda through Powerful Conversations to create positive outcomes for their teams and stakeholders.
by Phil Harkins