Why conversational skills are needed to create a high-performance, engaged, networked organization


I have been frustrated recently in having been too busy to blog about all but a handful of the insights generated in my many client engagements over the last months. Fortunately things are close to easing up into the end of the year so I’ll try to cover a bit of the backlog.

This afternoon was the last of 3 Round Table discussions I moderated as part of the 21st anniversary celebrations of the Graduate School of Business of the University of New England. This session’s topic was the art of conversation.

It was a rich discussion, and there was much to take from it. I was interested in the skills we identified that are clearly vitally important to successful organizations, yet often significantly underdeveloped.

Conversation is vital for today’s organizations for many reasons, including:

Customer engagement. We now all understand that markets are conversations, and organizations must have great ability to build real conversations with their customers in a world of social media.

Staff engagement. Conversation with staff is essential for them to understand the organization’s purpose, and to become engaged and aligned with it.

Organizational networks. The development of strong networks that allow the most relevant capabilities to be applied to emerging problems or opportunities happens through conversation.

Project performance. The value of diversity in project teams only is brought to bear through conversation.

Sense-making and strategy. Conversation is perhaps the most powerful tool individuals have for making sense of the world. As organizations are challenged by a rapidly shifting world, it is through internal conversations that they make sense of and create appropriate responses to those changes.

Fostering conversation can be helped by appropriate technologies and processes, but most importantly it requires skills, both at executive level and through the organization. These skills include:

Conversational skills. As we all know through experience, many managers do not have strong skills in conversation, in listening, questioning, probing, sharing, aligning, and relating to action. Difficult conversations for managers include not only the more obvious ones such as poor performance reviews, but also how to give positive feedback without raising expectations of financial rewards.

Social media skills. While internal social media platforms are being rolled out in many organizations today, a small minority of staff really understand how to use them well, the etiquette, the implications, and the possibilities.

Communication channel skills. One of the chapters in the first edition of my book Developing-Knowledge-Based Client Relationships, published in 2000, was on managing communication portfolios. What I discussed then still applies today: we need to understand the characteristics of all of the communication channels we have available to us, so we can select the best portfolio of channels for the purpose.

Context skills. Managers must not only be good at conversations, they must good at fostering the conditions for conversation, including enabling open expression, and allowing diverse views to be expressed and resolved in a positive frame.

So how do we develop these skills? The most important point is the recognition of their critical importance, and establishing programs that facilitate ongoing development of these skills. Recruitment needs to take into account the important of conversation skills.

Clearly there needs to be recognition of these critical capabilities in management education, as is certainly the case at UNE’s GSB. Over time let’s hope that conversation is treated as a core skill that all managers need to focus on and develop to help build tomorrow’s successful organizations.