I’m at a federal student financial aid conference in Vegas all week, and I today I heard the keynote speaker do her spiel. I’ve gotta say, she was really excellent. Good enough, in fact, that I’m compelled to blog the whole keynote! The speaker was Susan Scott, author of the book, Fierce Conversations and CEO of the company, Fierce, Inc. Her talk was so good, that I think we’ll be getting copies of her book for our whole management team.
Before I summarize what I heard, I should note that yesterday a reader, Michael Rubin, asked me how I pull new bits of learning into my daily life. That question is really worth considering, especially now that I have all this great info from the the speech I just heard. I’ll do it this way… First, I’ll identify what bits I really want to implement–the stuff I believe can change the way I work and live. Then I’ll incorporate those bits into my context lists and begin to work through them. The act of writing this post is one way that I’m trying to imbed these learnings into myself. I’ll also schedule myself a time to go back through my notes in a week or so, pick up the fallen pieces and re-integrate them into my routines.
One more note before I start the recap. This one is a little more sobering. I prowled around the Fierce, Inc website a bit and even signed up for their newsletter. I was pretty enthusiastic on my way into their website, but my enthusiam dampend quite a bit on the way out. First, and most obviously, where’s the blog? This is a company that makes their money by promoting engaging conversations. And yet all we’re presented with on the most public face of the company is a very attractive, brochure-ware website. That’s a real bummer. There is a newsletter that you can sign up for. That’s great and I look forward to it. But here are two problems that should be fixed: newsletters are one-way conversations. Exactly what Susan says we ought to avoid. The second problem is that they’ve been inconsistent in producing the newsletters. What’s the message when a company that extolls the virtues of conversation only wants to talk at you and only when it’s convenient for them? Bonus newsletter gripe: the confirmation message advised me that I should go to this website: http://www.fierceconversations.com. Nothing there. Not good. At the risk of beating a dead horse, I’ll note that some of the links on the online version of the latest newsletter don’t work. Susan, if you’re reading this, please make it better. Fix the newsletter bits. Keep a blog–even if it’s a short note every couple of days. Give your clients a reason to come visit you. Your company is innovative–show it! Need help? Write to me–I won’t even charge you.
On with the review, then. A quick search sent me to this article
that is a near match for the speech I heard. So if you want the
version without personal epiphanies, go there. What follows is what I
heard, what I’ll take with me, and how I plan to do it.
Susan cited a Hemmingway quote from The Sun Also Rises. I liked
it… When asked, "How did you go bankrupt? a man replied, "Gradually,
then suddenly." I completely understand that sentiment in my guts. So
many things feel that way…we don’t notice what’s happening until
we’re there, and then it all happened so fast. Susan’s take on this is
that we’re building relationships one conversation at a time. Each
conversation is either bolstering the relationship, doing nothing for
it (she called it ‘flatlining’, but that seems too much like death to
me), or degrading and reducing the relationship. Susan’s talk covered
three broad ideas and seven principles for "fierce" conversations.
That’s what follows…
Conversations with people (she said customers, but I’m expanding it)
are either bolstering relationships, reducing relationships, or keeping
relationships at status quo. And always, one conversation at a time.
She noted her perspective that leadership is a "one conversation at a
time" act. There is truth in that. Drucker talks about two types of
manager: readers and listeners. I’m a reader, but most of the people I
manage are listeners. So I think I miss a lot of opportunities to
bolster my leadership standing in their view. I really try to spend
time talking with the folks that report to me and I think I do okay.
But even so, I’ve known there is room for improvement and now I’ve got
the reason why I should improve (aside from just being nicer). Also
this idea seems to tie in very well with the recent discussion about
why organizations should hire bloggers. Bloggers, by definition, are
holding conversations. Especially corporate bloggers. That’s why
comment features are so important and ought to be implemented in
corporate blogs that aim to really connect with customers. At the very
least, a monitored email address ought to be prominently displayed.
The conversations we have aren’t really about our relationship. Those
conversations are the relationship. They’re the defining component of
relationships. Susan’s anecdote about point was to tell a story about
how a poet was invited to give the keynote address at a conference for
thinktank people that she attended. The poet related how he had only
just come to the realization that all those years that his wife wanted
to "talk about us" (which annoyed him), the thing they were doing
wasn’t "talking about us" but rather "defining us." She noted that the
most valuable currency an organization has are relationships–emotional
capital. She also noted that "fierce" conversations are both
intelligent and impassioned. Nearly everyone has intelligent
conversations at work–but few are really impassioned. We go and do
our jobs, but try not to get any on us. If we’re having a difficult
time gathering up enough energy to become impassioned about our work,
then perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate why we’re working there.
All conversations are with myself and sometimes they include other
people. This whole idea revolves around the perception problem that I
noted in The Secret Art of Managing Your Boss, Part 1.
In a room full of people, all of them seeing and hearing the same
content, you’ll get a roomful of interpretations about what happened.
Some will jive, many won’t. That’s a big problem when it comes to
having meaningful conversations, especially if we agree that such
conversations define our relationships. Who would knowingly want to
build a meaningful relationship upon a misconception?
Now on to the seven principles…all of which have a particular
trademarked turn of phrase. I’ll just note them here as I heard them
Muster the courage to to interrogate reality. I like this one. It’s
kinda like one of my favorite bumper stickers: Question Authority.
Susan gives a great tip on really getting people to cough up opnions.
Too often, folks who are just tired, or who don’t want to risk
derision, repond to the "What do you think?" question with "I don’t
know." Susan advises us to follow up with "If you did know, what would
you think?" Of course, there’s a risk that rephrasing the question
like that can come off sounding snotty. Try to avoid sounding snotty.
She says this tactic works well with teenagers too.
"What did you do today?"
"What you have done if you could have done something?"
Come out from behind yourself into the conversation, and make it real.
This is talking about the masks all of us wear. We put on "masks" for
the boss, for our spouse, for our kids, etc. The masks are just those
ways of behaving and interacting that seek to satisfy what we think the
other person wants to see. If we do this long enough, we’ll wake up
one day and not recognize the person staring back at us in the mirror.
I think the mask problem is a root cause of too many mid-life crises.
Susan notes that there is a Native American word, "moquita" (sp?) that
means "that which everyone knows but nobody speaks of" and that this
phenomenon can be used to judge the health of a community. The more
instances of moquita, the less healthy the community. Lose the masks,
be authentic (Peter Block riffs pretty heavily on this topic too) and
have conversations that mean something.
Be here. Be prepared to be nowhere else but here. This is talking
abouut being present to whomever/whatever is in front of you right
now. I noted in an earlier post that Steve Pavlina and Douglas Steere (pdf)) have good takes on exactly this topic. Go read ’em.
Tackle your toughest challenge today. Susan spent the least time
expanding upon this tip. She primarily referred us to chapter four of
her book. However, our buddy Steve Pavilina has some good thoughts
about the benefits of doing it now…
Take responsibility for your emotional wake. Consider what you leave
behind. Is it afterglow or aftermath? If you console yourself by
saying that if you’re too strong for someone, it’s their problem, then
you might be leaving more of an aftermath than is advisable. When
things don’t go as you planned, when relationships blow up regularly,
consider the common denominator: you. Other people may be responsible
for their feelings, but we’re all responsible for the context we set
for others. In a weird way, this principle reminds me of this story on Jon Strande‘s storyblog.
Let silence do the heavy lifting. Susan says that insights are found
between the words. This is a very Quaker sentiment and rings pretty
strong and true with me. Most people are very uncomfortable with
silence. Quakers, and many Catholics, have come to recognize the value
in sitting quietly and having a conversation with ourselves without
additional static getting in the way. It’s not easy to pay attention
to the still, small voice. Which takes us to…
Don’t just trust your instincts–obey them. Listen to the still, small
voice that’s telling you what’s right. In my experience, that voice is
most reliable when fed lots of quiet time. I remember the old T.V.
show, Magnum P.I., where Magnum always listened to his "little voice."
I like that idea.
So that’s it. Pretty much the whole keynote. Susan’s presentation was
much better than I can portray here. I’ll be getting her book…if
this stuff interests you, consider reading it too. I’m going to be
integrating all of her principles into my context lists. Some will
have more direct next action items, like Principle Four…I’ve got some
gnarly employee evaluations to work through, and I’ve definitely been
putting those off. I’ll be reviewing them today and preparing for