Not so long ago, power within organizations came from the commands of top executives. Leaders drove performance by devising strategic objectives, which they translated into directives that passed down to employees, whose job was merely to take orders and to act on those orders. Today that model has fallen apart.
In their book, “TALK INC: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power Their Organizations” (June 19, 2012), Boris Groysberg and Michael Slindargue that a new source of organizational power has come to the fore—a source they call organizational conversation. Instead of handing down commands or imposing formal controls, many leaders today are interacting with their workforce in ways similar to an ordinary conversation between two people. They are fostering and facilitating conversation-like practices throughout their company—practices that enable a higher degrees of trust, improved operational efficiency, greater motivation among employees, and better coordination between top-level strategy and front-line execution.
By Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind
Forward-looking leaders, when they decide to chart a new conversational strategy, often begin by looking backward—by taking stock of what they and their colleagues have done thus far to support communication to, from, and among employees. Being intentional, in other words, typically involves a willingness to be introspective. Whether they call it an audit or an assessment or something else, leaders who conduct a formal, top-to-bottom evaluation of their communication practices usually find that it yields sharp lessons on how to improve their organizational conversation.
For example, a thorough survey of internal communication at General Motors in 2008 led company leaders to recognize that they needed to streamline that operation, just as they might need to streamline their automotive assembly lines (or, for that matter, some of the cars in their product line). “We did a complete assessment of how effective our communication system was—what was working, what wasn’t,” says Kim Carpenter, who was then manager of global internal communications at GM. “The big thing we learned from it was that generating a lot of content is not necessarily effective.” Before, the company followed a “cafeteria approach,” she explains. “We’d put information in 20 different places, and you could get the information in whichever place you liked. But that generated a lot of waste and repetitiveness, and it required a lot of resources.” After the assessment, GM leaders opted to restrict their use of communication vehicles to just four areas: Web- and intranet-based content, video programming, “push” e-mail messaging, and face-to-face interaction.
Create a “Bucket” List
Just because leaders can talk about a given topic doesn’t mean they should talk about it. Just because they can undertake a communication initiative doesn’t mean they should undertake it. And just because they can deploy a particular tool to communicate with employees doesn’t mean they should deploy it. Before they take any of those steps, they would do well to think about the purpose they’re trying to serve. Conversationally adept leaders, therefore, analyze each communication effort to see whether it matches up with certain key priorities.
At utility holding company Exelon, those in charge of employee communication used to organize that function around a loose-knit set of traditional messaging vehicles—a newsletter here, a Website there. In 2008, Exelon leaders hired Howard N. Karesh to lead that group and to remake its operations from the ground up. Before long, he adopted a conversational strategy that organized all communication activity not according to the channels he and his colleagues use, but according to the objectives they seek to promote. He decided to “focus on three specific buckets,” he explains. First, there is leadership connectivity, which involves the quality of interaction between leaders and employees. Second, there is strategy and business acumen, which refers to the goal of educating employees about the competitive environment Exelon faces today. And third, there is workplace and culture, which encompasses corporate values and employee engagement.
Go Wide, Go Deep
In any company that’s grown to be large and complex, most employees necessarily devote most of their attention to what’s happening in their narrow part of the organization. As a result, they fail to see what their colleagues in other departments and divisions are doing, and they lose sight of what their company as a whole aims to do. To counter that tendency, leaders need to give employees a chance to widen their perspective—and a chance to deepen their knowledge of the company’s big-picture strategy.
At McKesson, executives have turned part of a regular conference call with employees into a forum where people who work in one area of the company’s health-care services business can learn about the ways and workings of other areas. Each quarter, top leaders host an hour-long call, and any employee can dial in to listen to it. During the first half of the call, participating executives discuss the kind of material that is standard fare for such events—financial results from the previous quarter, expectations for the next quarter. In the second half of the call, though, they focus on one aspect of the company’s multifaceted operations.
Make a Mark
No longer is branding for customers only. Employees, too, are more apt to become fully engaged with a company when that company displays a crisp, coherent sense of identity. For that reason, many leaders devote time, attention, and other resources—resources of the kind external marketers typically deploy—to generating a strong internal brand message. A brand gives people a fixed, memorable understanding of what they’re talking about when they talk about a company.
For employees, it can serve as a tool that helps them to follow the thread of organizational conversation. “Many people think branding is just about having a logo. But it’s clearly much more than that,” says Kelly Lindenboom, vice president of corporate communications at Verenium, a biofuel-technology company based in San Diego. In 2009, after winding up a major external branding effort, she and other Verenium leaders turned their attention to enabling employees to see the company—its goals, its commitments, its culture— as a whole. They prepared a lean, polished marketing piece called “The Little Green Book: An Employee Guide to the Verenium Brand.” Between its covers (which are green, of course, partly in homage to the company’s focus on developing sustainable sources of energy) are sections titled “What Is a Brand?” and “How the Verenium Brand Is Built.” About the booklet, Lindenboom says: “It rolls out our core values and explains to employees who we are and what we’re trying to achieve.”
Talk Together, Work Together
How does a company make sure its left hand knows what its right hand is doing? The answer is simple, at least on one level: Those on the left-hand side of the organization must talk with those on the right-hand side. On the level of hard practicality, though, getting people to talk together requires a measure of intentionality on the part of those who manage the company’s overall organizational conversation. Communication across departmental lines doesn’t come naturally, and smart leaders work to make it a matter of carefully nurtured habit.
Rick Eno, CEO of bioscience company Metabolix, keeps a fairly loose grip on the process of communication among his employees. “We have some very bright people, so if we can outline where we want to go, they’re going to help us get there,” he says. “I don’t want to overengineer how we get there.” That approach, he adds, “has resulted in a lot of dialogue that’s in alignment with the direction of the company.” But a challenge arises when it comes to operationally aligning one part of the company with another. It is, to a large extent, the classic challenge faced by any organization that seeks to turn raw innovation into customer-ready products. The manufacturing group at Metabolix, for example, must keep in close contact with groups that come earlier or later in the company’s value chain.
“As we move from pure science to commercialization, we migrate to a more cross-functional kind of communication,” Eno notes. “We’re trying to compensate for the natural breakdown of communication that occurs because of the pace at which technology is moving.” Toward that end, he and his team have instituted practices that encourage people to talk outside the box, as it were. “We’re doing some organizational training in which we look at points of integration between departments,” he says. That training starts with getting employees to situate whatever they do within a larger context, he explains: “If you’re pursuing something that’s different, one of the first questions you should ask is, ‘Whose work does it affect other than my own? Who do I talk to about it?’”
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from “TALK, INC.: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power Their Organizations” by Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind. Copyright 2012. All rights reserved. For more information, visit http://www.talkincbook.com.
Boris Groysberg is a professor of business administration in the Organizational Behavior unit at the Harvard Business School. Currently, he teaches courses on talent management and leadership in the school’s MBA and Executive Education programs. In addition to “TALK, INC.,” he is the author of “Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance.”
Michael Slind is a writer, editor, and communication consultant. He served as managing editor and as a senior editor at Fast Companymagazine.