Conversations at work

As I have mentioned previously, my first corporate job was with a mid-sized publishing firm. I was hired by the Vice President of Human Resources as the company’s first-ever Manager of Training and Development.

At that time I was particularly interested in management as a skill and as something that could be taught (I was a relatively newly-minted MBA graduate). I was excited about my new job because I saw my role as an opportunity to design and lead an ambitious set of management training programs – sales training, problem-solving, leadership, team-building. I wanted to create programs that would brand the company as “with-it,” help us recruit stronger talent into the organization, and – oh, by the way – enhance our performance and profitability.

Much to my surprise, my boss refused to let me set up a formal program.

He wouldn’t even let me propose one. Instead, he counseled me (wisely, as I soon found out) to get out and about, to meet people all across the company, to find out what they were doing, what they were struggling with, and how they wanted the company to improve.

In other words, my boss wanted me to assess the situation and understand the company’s training needs before jumping in with a solution to a problem that perhaps no one else thought was important. Staring with a needs assessment is obviously a very professional approach, but it’s one that an impatient, analytic 25-year-old found hard to embrace at first.

However, I spent my first six months or so simply getting to know the organization, building relationships with key staff at all levels, and finding small projects that met immediate needs and helped establish me as a competent and trustworthy professional. In hindsight, it was an incredible opportunity.

I learned to engage people in conversation – first to understand their jobs and their goals, but ultimately to get to know them as individuals, and to understand their ambitions, their frustrations, and their dreams.

One of my earliest “small projects” was to organize and support a series of informal lunch meetings where the CEO met with employees in groups of about a dozen at a time for a “Conversation with Ken.” Clearly my boss had convinced Ken, the CEO, that he needed to be seen more often, and to hear how others in the company felt about the current strategy, branding campaign, and operational effectiveness. Certainly a central part of leading any organization is being both visible and accessible.

As a member of the C-Suite, Jim Z. (my boss) was attempting to complement my informal assessment efforts with middle managers by initiating a second wave of low-risk conversations about company issues in which groups of employees could express their views and feel listened to, appreciated, and heard.

My good fortune and opportunity was to sit in on all of those lunch meetings, taking notes and helping the CEO debrief afterwards. Our vision (Jim Z’s and mine) was not only to learn what the employees were thinking and feeling, but also to establish that kind of informal, off-the-record conversation as a new mode of operating (not just for the CEO but also for other senior executives and middle managers as well).

But a well-intended program idea does not guarantee a good outcome. Far too often those lunch “conversations” turned into one-way speeches; Ken used them to lecture to employees, or to talk about broad strategic imperatives that he wanted them to understand and support. He managed to fill up most of the lunch hour by talking instead of listening.

And what did the employees take away from those lunches? Well, they did learn something about the company’s current competitive challenges and strategic options. But unfortunately they also learned that the company leadership wasn’t particularly interested in their ideas, or their perspectives, or what it was like to be “in the trenches.”

This was the same company I wrote about last week, whose move from a downtown business district skyscraper to a suburban office complex contributed to a deteriorating corporate culture – one that ironically became more hierarchical and centrally controlled as the company’s facility became flatter and more dispersed (“Conversations are at the heart of culture”).

Last week I suggested that space matters, and that a workplace layout can have a dramatic impact on the quality of corporate conversations. But the willingness of senior executives to listen – to really, really listen – to their employees is an even more important part of the equation.

Have you ever been in a situation like this? One where someone ruined an important conversation by failing to listen? How did you respond? Were you able to restore a feeling of respect and openness, or was that an impossible task?