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How to Lead Great Conversations with Your Team

HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR on Leadership, case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand-selected to help you unlock the best in those around you. Some leaders spend their careers honing their relationships and approach with employees. But Harvard Business School professor Boris Groysberg and corporate communications expert Michael Slind argue that leaders are at their best when they engage their teams through a really simple approach: talking with them. In this episode, you’ll learn how to be more intentional about your conversations with employees – to ensure that you’re cultivating appropriate intimacy, inviting meaningful interaction,  . You’ll also learn how to make your conversations open but not aimless. Because conversation alone, without action, can be frustrating for everyone involved. If you’re trying to build stronger relationships with , this episode is for you. It originally aired on HBR IdeaCast in July 2012. Here it is.

JULIA KIRBY: Hello and welcome to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Julia Kirby, and with me in the studio today are Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind. They are authors of the new book Talk, Inc. How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power Their Organizations. Gentlemen, thanks for joining us today.

BORIS GROYSBERG: Great to be here.

MICHAEL SLIND: Thanks for having us, Julia.

JULIA KIRBY: Well, congratulations on the book. It’s directed, obviously, at leaders of large organizations. It reflects a lot of wisdom from corporate communications executives. But it’s really about employee engagement, isn’t it?

BORIS GROYSBERG: So, the book actually focuses on employee engagement. And the reason why we focus on employee engagement is basically the higher the engagement of your employees, the better your performance is going to be. We started this project about four years ago, and what this book is all about is about an organization that is full of conversation. If you think about what organization is all about, it’s just basically a bunch of conversations that are happening at the same time. And what leaders do to facilitate the conversations that actually produce value, and actually engage employees, is that what distinguished some of the best corporations that we studied. So, if you think about what makes conversations among friends to be really productive is that it has all the attributes. It’s interactive. It’s intimate. It’s inclusive. It’s actually intentional. And if you think about it, when you place that conversation inside organizations, many of those great attributes actually disappear. So, the book is, how do you actually have productive conversations in an organization? And the reason why it’s actually more important now in the 21st century than before is that, if you think about what’s going on around us, we’re a knowledge-based economy. Our source of competitive advantage are actually people who are working for us, working for our corporation. And the more engaged they are, the more productive they’re going to be. So, I think having right conversations [INAUDIBLE] 21st century is more important than 20 or 25 years ago. I think the speed of change, how industries are changing, how products are changing, is much, much faster than it used to be. So, staying close to customers, staying close to your employees, that’s becoming more and more important. Many companies nowadays are global companies, so you actually have to not only engage employees here locally, but you have to engage them across the board. And so, communication, being able to be in touch with employees, is becoming more and more important.

JULIA KIRBY: That’s a great overview of the main themes of the book. You really quickly touched on four things that you say in the book are really the difference between what’s passed for communications in the traditional corporate setting and what really constitutes a conversation. Michael, do you want to go into those a little more deeply?

MICHAEL SLIND: Oh, sure. And I think a big point is we don’t use the word “conversation” just because it’s a clever change of phrasing. We really found that there is a direct analogy between how companies are trying to change the way they communicate and promote communication among their employees and ordinary personal conversation. So, we looked at what they were doing. We saw a map to basic attributes of person-to-person conversation. So, to review what Boris said, intimacy is really about getting closer to employees. It’s really an attribute of leadership. And that, again, maps to the quality of a good personal conversation, where people can get close together. Not just close spatially, although that’s a part of it. When you’re talking about big global companies, that’s an important dynamic. But also just close in spirit. Sort of avoiding that from on high, that corporate tone– I mean corporate in the worst sense of the word– approach. The second [INAUDIBLE] is interactivity. Obviously, in a real conversation, there’s back and forth. People are engaged in dialogue, and not just monologue. As, again, traditional corporate communication can degenerate into simple monologue. Inclusion is the third element that we noted in conversation. And it is being played out in organizational conversation. And that really goes beyond just going back and forth, to the sense that it’s an equal opportunity endeavor. Everyone is participating. And one the most striking innovations is companies that are promoting employee-generated content. This would be sort of a variation on user-generated content that you see out in the commercial web. And that is where employees are actually taking part in the conversation as full-fledged content providers and not just as passive consumers of the information. And the fourth one– and this is very important in that if you think about it, a real good conversation is open, but it’s not aimless. A real conversation, even if it’s just between two people, if it’s not just about small talk there’s an agenda there. We want to get something out of it. And I think that’s important. It’s important that when we talk about opening up a conversation, we’re not just trying to be loosey goosey, let’s just talk about this. This has to tie back to the strategy the company is pursuing. And just as in an ordinary personal conversation, you want to make sure you get something out of it. A really good organizational conversation is very strategically minded. It aims to tie back every aspect of communication to the fundamental competitive and strategic objectives of the organization.

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JULIA KIRBY: Got it. So if I get a memo in my mailbox, that could be called a communication. But in order for me to really feel like I’m part of a conversation, there needs to be this intimate setting, interactivity, inclusiveness, and intentionality. So, we love stories at IdeaCast. Let’s get into your favorite story in the book. What is it?

MICHAEL SLIND: Well, in the book we talk a lot of different companies, and we talk about several at chapter length. One of them is EMC Corporation, the world’s largest data storage company, located in Hopkinton, Mass. And they have really become exemplars of all the four I’s, as we call them, the four attributes of organizational conversation. But in particular, they’ve come to be a very inclusive company. And let me tell you a few things that they’re doing on that front. They are sponsoring employee blogs. And it was not just letting employees, but actually under the aegis of the whole company, they’re letting employees become thought leaders in their field as individual bloggers. So that’s an area in which they’re actually including employees. Not relying on their corporate communication department to do all the messaging, but letting ordinary employees do it. One of, I think, our very favorite stories in the whole book is how at a grassroots level, a group of women at the company decide they want to tell the story of what it’s like to be a working mother at EMC. So they actually, from the ground up, got buy-in from a senior executive to give them a little bit of funding, a little bit of support. But they basically did it all themselves. They created a book, and it was called The Working Mother Experience. And it told, I forget the exact number, something like 96 or 97 stories. Mostly it was women. There was one father in there who contributed as well. And I think the key thing is, again, any number of companies might be doing a diversity and inclusion campaign. But it would be top-down. Here was a case where the employees were actually leading the conversation.

JULIA KIRBY: OK. So that’s a great example of inclusiveness. Is there another story that you want to share, Boris, that would hit on one of the other I’s?

BORIS GROYSBERG: Let me give you a story about intimacy, which is another I. And I think the story comes from Jim Rogers, who was at that time CEO of Synergy, an energy company. And actually, Jim had developed quite a reputation of communicating with employees. He was one of the CEOs in the industry who actually developed strategy maps, which is the way you explain what the strategy of the company is to front-line employees. But one of the things that we mention in the book is the listening sessions that Jim Rogers implemented in the company. And he was a constant communicator. And on one of his trips, he was actually in front of about 60 to 70 people. And he was talking about the past, the present, the future, where the company was going. And during that process, he also asked a number of employees for feedback. And then he realized he actually wants to be rated and graded as a CEO. So he asked employees to give him a grade. It was an A, B, C, D, or an F. And as Jim described it, in the moment when he was waiting for the results to appear on the screen, his heart was just going faster and faster. And a number of people gave him an A. I think a number of people gave him a B. There were a few C’s. And so on. But he actually went a step further. And he said look, not only grade me as a CEO. But tell me what can I do better. And he got from employees basically some challenges that the company was facing at that time. And he grouped them in a number of categories. And one was about execution, another was about communication, and so on. And he was able to take those challenges and actually put together an action plan to address those challenges going forward. So that is one of the ways that he was able to build up trust and basically create this sense of intimacy. And many years after, those employees talked about that moment. The moment the distance between the CEO and the people in the room were minimal. And people were feeling like they were on the same boat.

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JULIA KIRBY: It’s a great story. At the same time, it feels so risky. It seems like there must be a lot of risks that come with this new era that you’re describing, the more conversation-rich environment. Because he actually then had to do something with what he was hearing from people.

BORIS GROYSBERG: Right. And I think that the followup is really, really important. And when she talks about it, once you get those challenges from people– and what he did is actually he basically communicated with everybody and said look, here are the seven things that you want me to work on. And by the way, I will work on them. What employees would expect are the actions. Because if there’s a number of leaders who actually run sessions like this, employees come up with suggestions and then somebody actually takes them, put it in a bucket. And nobody does anything about it. The time when it really works is when you bring up those challenges and you generate [? that type ?] of conversations, you actually act on them. So, one of the things he was actually doing the next two years is acting on many of those challenges. And I think that’s important. If you don’t act, it’s a significant risk. It actually can create a lot more distance and probably a lot less trust. So asking for it, hearing what people have to say, and acting on it. That’s what generates [INAUDIBLE].

JULIA KIRBY: Michael, any other risks that people should be aware of as they have true conversations in the organization?

MICHAEL SLIND: Well, sure. One way of looking at that is to consider that in the book we’re positing this model that we call organizational conversation as a replacement, so to speak, of the traditional corporate communication function. And if you think about that, as it developed over the course of the last century, corporate communication was a control function. It was about being on message and making sure that there was a very specific set of things that were being said under the company sponsorship, so to speak. And go back to the case of EMC. As they opened up both their internal social network and also opened up possibly the employees speaking outside the company as EMC representatives, they had to really think about well, how do we control this? And it is a real risk. They thought a lot about it. They had a lot of meetings. And at the end of the day, they decided to not put too many controls on it. They were fully facing the risk. But what they found– I would not say this would always be the case, but we talked to a number of companies that found that the risks are less onerous than you might think. In that people tend to police themselves, for the obvious reasons. They’re professionals. And also, people police one another. People take pride in their company. And if someone is speaking out of turn on a social network or on a discussion board, other people will come and call them on it. You don’t need to have someone from corporate communications saying you can’t do this. Or here are the bullet points or the talking points that you have to say if you’re going to be speaking for EMC, for example.

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JULIA KIRBY: You have a couple great examples in the book of conversations around values. In some places, they’re called having a values jam. Or kind of creating the mission statement for the organization. It seemed to me like that was a great way of making those things seem less, I don’t know, Dilbert-ish or what have you. Do you want to talk about those at all?

MICHAEL SLIND: I think one of the early chapters in the book, we talk at length about– and I want to make a point that in the book we don’t just talk about American companies. We found a very interesting company in India, the third-largest energy supplier in India, called Hindustan Petroleum. It is a company that, back in the ’70s, was nationalized. And it had a long heritage of both being a traditional industrial company and being a public company. And having all the stodgy top-down bureaucracy that would go with both those traits.In the 1990s, when the company faced an opening of its markets and [INAUDIBLE] change, one of the first things they did– one of the big things that they did– was involve in a broad cross-section of many thousands of employees in a whole series of what they called vision workshops. And they actually came in a kind of bottom-up, crowd-sourced way, they created a vision statement and a mission and value statement. And I think that the executives we spoke with the company really believed that, two things. One, it was actually better. There were things that the employees brought up that the top management, the top strategic thinkers in the company, weren’t necessarily thinking of that ended up actually being in those final mission and value statements. And then secondly, it may people more engaged in the whole process. It made it so it was real and not something that was being handed to them from on high.

JULIA KIRBY: I just think that’s a great example of a type of exercise that could be really an eye-roll provoker and ends up really producing that kind of energy that you say is fueled in an organization by great conversations.

BORIS GROYSBERG: And I think what’s amazing as we have been conducting interviews– and we’ve done interviews all the way from senior managers in this company to people who actually have to operate gas stations– that the amount of buy-in that front-line workers actually felt in creating their mission. I mean, they truly felt that that’s their company. It was the only company, when the whole sector was on strike, it was the only company when the employees themselves decided that they will not go on strike and will continue to serve customers. So, if you look at engagement, if you look at the level of innovation that actually happens in companies, bottom-up innovation, to actually the level of commitment. That company was able to tap into that front-line worker’s potential.

JULIA KIRBY: So, Boris, Michael, it’s all we have time for. I wish we could talk longer. Congratulations again on the book. And thanks for coming.



HANNAH BATES: You just heard Harvard Business School professor Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind, Chief Marketing Officer at the Fistula Foundation in conversation with Julia Kirby on the HBR IdeaCast. They’re the authors of the book Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power Their Organizations. We’ll be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about leadership from the Harvard Business Review. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your friends and colleagues, and follow our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review. We’re a production of the Harvard Business Review. If you want more podcasts, articles, case studies, books, and videos like this, find it all at This episode was produced by Anne Saini and me, Hannah Bates. Ian Fox is our editor. Music by Coma Media. Special thanks to Adam Buchholz, Rob Eckhardt, Maureen Hoch, Adi Ignatius, Karen Player, Ramsey Khabbaz, Nicole Smith, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener. See you next week.

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