Driving culture and change through organizational conversations

Many leadership development programs exist to support or stimulate the growth of leadership capability in organizations by expanding knowledge, changing attitudes, behaviors, and developing skills in individuals and intact teams. A lot is written and researched about the value and impact of such programs in organizations. Unsurprisingly, their value can go many ways depending on factors such as senior management support, available resources, quality of design, materials, experience of faculty, and so on. To the extent the program is relegated to simply another “event” on a calendar, then it is at risk of being less effective as it could otherwise be.

Now, what if these programs are also leveraged organizational conversations that bring them beyond simply transmitting content and interactively engages the hearts and minds of their people? These conversations engage leaders in an ongoing, ‘living’ dialogue that enables them to share, explore and address themes of individual and organizational importance.

With this approach, programs become recurring conversations throughout the year, involving leaders at multiple levels. Their focus areas and tone shift as the organization evolves and rolls through time.

Organizational Conversations — What It Looks Like

We define organizational conversations as recurring human interactions that are intended to enable organizations to sustainably meet their goals and fulfil their purpose. They make up the interactional fabric needed for an organization to function effectively.

Organizational conversations take place internally and externally. They vary from private 1-1 coffee conversations, team meetings, coaching circles to large group strategy workshops and supplier negotiations.

Organizational conversations can be planned, ad-hoc, formal, informal, virtual or face-to-face, synchronous or asynchronous, and happen at all levels, and across all levels

So, why would that matter?

Firstly, leadership development programs can create a common language for leadership and culture that is unique to the organization and can be used immediately, in the moment. This language enables leaders’ ability to interact comprehensively with each other and together make sense (Weick, Sutcliffe & Obstfeld, 2005) of what is happening in themselves, in their teams, in the organization and in the external environment. Shared language facilitates deeper connection and meaning when it is actively used.

Secondly, leadership development programs can provide an intimate platform (Groysberg and Slind, 2012) for senior leaders to interact with other leaders in their organization, including emerging leaders. During engagement sessions, or candid dialogues, they can clarify direction, test strategies, gauge talent, harvest ideas, influence thinking, calibrate understanding of organizational priorities, role model behaviors or simply hear the talk of the town. For a senior leader, access to these conversations are a tremendous asset, if and when conducted properly and purposefully.

Thirdly, this development can be a conduit through which to guide and stimulate organizational change. A favorable environment can be created to enable the change to permeate more easily throughout the organization by actively involving leaders in conversations in a safe setting, enabling them to get on board and clarify their role in the change. Also, the conversations taking place in these programs hold the potential of shaping a shared sense of purpose and identity among leaders.

How do you create a program that develops both leadership capability and becomes an influential organizational conversation?

Let’s talk about a few areas that will be useful and necessary to address in order to make it happen.

To start with the obvious: ensure the program actively supports and aligns with the organization’s purpose, direction, strategy and values. If a program is (or is perceived to be) stand-alone and misaligned, it will soon be seen as irrelevant and the wrong platform to talk about things that matter. It may be more impactful to have fewer offerings that are intentionally aligned to the organization’s goals, rather than a catalog of leadership courses that are not well coordinated with each other or with the organization’s purpose, direction, strategy and values.

Next, identify the interdependencies the program has (or should have) with other activities in the organization. Think about large change or transformation initiatives, especially yet not limited to those impacting organizational culture. Also, look for interdependencies within the realms of talent acquisition and development, employee experience, and (near) future business challenges.

Furthermore, select the themes that will benefit from having conversations among peer leaders or across leadership levels. Are there certain mental models or beliefs existing in the organization that warrant closer examination? Perhaps reflection is needed on a specific external trend or a moral dilemma that the organization is grappling with? These themes will and should change over time.

Determine how the program fits with the current landscape of organizational conversations. What value will it add, what gaps will it fill, and which existing conversations will it amplify? After all, the program creates the opportunity for existing organizational conversations that leaders are involved in – ones that are planned (i.e. goal setting meetings, performance reviews etc.), as well as those that are more organic (coffee machine talks, ad-hoc coaching conversations) – of becoming more intentional and focused on what really matters.

Think through how the program’s objectives, design and content enable the right conversations to take place, and at a high quality. For example, picture a session objective describing that participants explore the subject of resilience by sharing and talking about their personal experience of stress. Such intent will likely yield a very different conversation, interpersonal connection and therefore outcome from a session objective that states that participants will increase their understanding of resilience by examining the models provided.

As a final consideration, ensure that the facilitators shape the right conditions required for deeper dialogue to emerge. For example, do they nurture dialogic behaviors such as respecting, listening, suspending and voicing (Isaacs, 1999) to help create a safe and conducive environment in which leaders open up? In other words, ensure that they create the right ‘container’ so people are willing to talk about the stuff that really matters, and say what really needs to be said, listened to, understood and valued.

In conclusion

We know that developing leadership capability in an organization encompasses much more than just offering a formal leadership development curriculum. Likewise, a leadership development program can accomplish a great deal beyond just growing individual leadership skills. By turning the program into a purposeful organizational conversation, it strengthens the interactional fabric and creates an impact that humans only can achieve when they deeply connect and interact with each other.

Human Fluency helps organizations understand their current landscape of conversations, and what is needed to align or improve it as a way of creating sustainable outcomes. We provide practical solutions to develop capability in leadership and human interaction.
– Weick, K., Sutcliffe, K. M., &Obstfeld, D. (2005). Organizing and the process of sensemaking. Organization Science, 16(4): 409–421.- Groysberg, B., & Slind, M. (2012). Leadership is a conversation. Harvard business review90(6), 76-84.

– Isaacs, W. (1999). Dialogue and the art of thinking together: A pioneering approach to communicating in business and in life. Crown Business.

Human Fluency is a company that operates from The Netherlands and the USA. We believe that people and organizations can fulfil their true purpose and make a greater contribution to this world when they place effective human interaction and behavior at the heart of what they do every day. We want to help them become more fluent so they can accomplish meaningful and sustainable outcomes.