Daddy, what do you do all day?
A question to strike fear into the heart of any parent whose job is leadership! Just how do you explain what you do to an inquisitive child? Some, perhaps, might be able to fall back to describing what they are trying to achieve – the marketing director might say that he tries to get more people to buy a product name that the child might recognise. This doesn’t, however, say anything about what you actually do.
Others might say, probably wearily, that they sit in meetings all day. Whilst the intention of this might be to end the line of questioning, it’s actually a lot closer to the truth.
When you think about it, this is exactly what leaders do all day; 1:1’s, team meetings, workshops, conferences. The people you meet with change, but at least 80% of most leaders’ lives is taken up with talking to people. If you extend the definition to include the conversations held by email, the proportion is probably well over 90%.
An Olympic Inspiration
The last month has been full of the beamming faces of sports men and women talking about how elated they are to have achieved extraordinary things. It’s hard not to be inspired by their dedication and determination and it certainly renews my faith in my ability to achieve far beyond what I currently believe to be possible.
There is, however, another thing that they consistently talk about in their interviews. Whether it’s before their event or afterwards, athlete after athlete talks about “focussing on the process”. Some use this terminology whilst others just talk about being immersed in what they are doing.
Both in their preparation and, particularly, in the white heat of competition, when the result means so much, they all say the key to excellence is one thing: Keeping their entire attention on the activity of what they are doing, their technique and the elements that they have to execute perfectly to succeed.
They make a clear distinction between this ‘process’ and the ‘outcome’ – the result of their endeavour – whether this is in the form of a measure (time, distance, score etc.) or the position that they end up in relative to the other competitors.
Sport is an imperfect metaphor for business but there are lessons for us from this field of high achievement that can help us transform our performance as leaders.
Excellence in conversations
With most of the leaders I come across, most of the focus is on ‘outcomes’ rather than their ‘process’ – that is, the conversations they are participating in. There are many very good reasons for this, not least the pressure and scrutiny that we are under every day for the delivery of these outcomes. But don’t forget that athletes are also under enormous scrutiny for their results.
It is often said that what distinguishes the very best sports people from the merely very good is that the best have the courage and composure to keep their focus on the activity they have to execute – even at the moments of the greatest pressure.
Most leaders, however, either invest little time in developing their skill at having high performance conversations – or are blissfully ignorant of their importance at all.
There are many types of conversations. In leadership teams we distinguish between six types of conversation but there are also a variety of other, related, conversations that happen outside the leadership team and which are essential to successful leadership.
Kim Krisco, in his excellent (but sadly out of print) book ‘Leadership and the art of conversation’ makes the distinction between conversations that focus on:-
- The past – which he calls the realm of history
- The present – the realm of action
- The future – the realm of possibility
Whilst we would all recognise these, he makes the point that we are often unbalanced in the levels of focus that we give each realm – and we are unskilled at moving our conversations from one conversation to another.
This poses two big questions for all leaders.
- Just how good are your conversations? In your dealings with your subordinates, peers, team members and other stakeholders – are the conversations running well and delivering the outcomes you and the organisation need?
- If, like most leaders, your conversations aren’t as effective as you need them to be, what is your part in that – and what can you do to shift them?
These are clearly huge subjects but you will find resources to help with them here. This month we will focus on just one critical conversation.
Facing the Tiger
John Scherer, a great friend and inspirational developer of leadership, taught me this lesson.
If you are hacking through the jungles of Borneo and are unlucky enough to come face to face with a tiger you have two choices:
You can run – but by doing so you will engage his hunting instinct. He will chase you and he will eat you.
You can stand and look him in the eye. He may still eat you. He may, however, just decide that you aren’t prey, or that you aren’t worth it, and move on.
Every one of us has a ‘facing the tiger conversation’. It’s the conversation you know is important, is necessary to your or the organisation’s future success -but is the one that you are running away from.
Even as you read this sentence, you know exactly the critical conversation you are avoiding. Yes, that one!
The problem is that by running away it is already eating you. The impact of not having it, compounded by the guilt that you carry about your failure to confront it, impacts on you everyday – and probably into those restless thoughts at night as well.
There will be good reasons why you don’t confront it. You’re probably worried about undesirable outcomes – perhaps risks to yourself or that the other person will respond badly.
We have all confronted these tigers before. We know that when we do the tiger usually doesn’t eat us – and we often achieve a breakthrough. Even if they didn’t go as well as we’d hoped, we almost always end up in a better place – with a new perspective on what we need to do next.
When I learned about this from John, I knew what my tiger was. I had an incredibly difficult relationship with my manager which was getting worse and worse. She was frustrated and I was really miserable. I hated my job and really wanted to leave to set up my own business. I’d been hiding from this because it was a huge step for me and I was afraid of what might happen.
I called her and suggested that we meet. I told her that what we were doing was daft and we should discuss what she wanted, what I wanted to try to find a solution that would meet both our needs.
We knew that we both wanted me to leave the organisation – which was, of course, why I had been avoiding the diuscussion. It wasn’t an easy conversation but it wasn’t that hard either. We reached an agreement shortly afterwards. That was 2005 and I’ve never looked back!
If your conversations aren’t as effective or productive as they need to be for you and your organisations success then our Six Conversations programme will do for you what years of preparation and training do for Olympic athletes.
Please visit our website to read more about The Six Conversations Leadership Team programme or download our article, the Seven Illusions of Leadership which shows what it looks like in practice – based around a real case study.
Better still, give us a call on 0845 519 7871 to explore your issues further or to arrange a free Strategy Session.