Leading Powerful Conversations

The old model of leadership is all about having the answers. According to the theory, you get to the top by being able to answer the tough questions and come up with compelling answers—usually on your feet.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/endopack, Image #4674714

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/endopack

But I am noticing that that a new model of leadership is taking root in many organizations, including our own here at Thomas Nelson. In this model, the leader’s primary role is to initiate conversations that bring out the best thinking of the tribe [affiliate link] and direct those conversations toward a positive outcome.

In our company, we pull our extended leadership team together once a quarter, usually before the All Employee Meeting. I prepare specific content for those meetings. For example, I report on our financial performance and then I try to put those results in context. I then usually talk about where we are going as a company.

However, for the past several quarters, I have also tried to lead meaningful conversations around specific topics. This, I think, has had several positive benefits:

  • It has given people an opportunity to speak their mind and thus play a role in shaping the future.
  • It has brought forth the group’s best thinking—with sometimes surprising results.
  • It has revealed where we have confusion or misunderstanding and given us an opportunity to provide clarity.
  • It has given us a chance to create alignment and move forward as a single, more unified team.

As a practical matter, prior to the meeting I select the topic. For example, last week, I wanted to discuss “corporate strategy.” So I created a series of questions about this topic. I thought it would be interesting to began with this one, “Based on what you know or have experienced at Thomas Nelson, how would you describe our corporate strategy?”

We had about 60 people sitting at eight round tables. I asked people to discuss the question at their table with their small group for 10 minutes. Then I opened the question up to the whole group, and we discussed it for another 10 minutes. The comments were fascinating.

I then made a brief presentation about our corporate strategy, using a model based on Jim Collin’s Hedgehog Concept. I then asked a series of questions based on this.

Sometimes I had the team work on their own for several minutes, sometimes at their tables with their small groups, and sometimes we started directly with the larger group. Each time I would display one or two questions on my slides to guide the conversation.

I tried hard to create an environment that was “safe for dissent,” where people could “speak the unspeakable.” (I think this is especially important if we are to experience true breakthroughs in our company.) When people said something controversial or contrary to the status quo, I affirmed them in real time and attempted to fold their comments into the larger conversation.

As you could imagine, initially people were reticent. They were afraid that if they truly said what they were thinking, they would get into trouble. But gradually, over several quarters, that has largely faded. No one has been fired, or even reprimanded, for speaking their mind. In fact, I find that it has created a much more energetic discussion. More importantly, it actually accelerates the rate of change. The sooner we get issues on the table, the sooner we can address them and find real solutions.

As the leader, I think the key has been to crafting the questions carefully before the meeting. But at the same time, I have had to remain flexible. I have had to sometimes abandon questions or create new ones on the fly as the conversation has unfolded.

Leading powerful conversations is a new way of leading—at least for me. Sometimes it feels a little scary because it is largely unscripted. But I am convinced that all of us are smarter than some of us, and that this is the best way to tap into the wisdom of the team.

Question: How is your leadership style changing? What kinds of questions are you asking?
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  • http://www.withoutwax.tv/ Pete Wilson

    This is such wise leadership Michael!

  • http://www.withoutwax.tv Pete Wilson

    This is such wise leadership Michael!

  • http://human3rror.com/ John

    love the first thought about how leaders typically become leaders and how they answer q's on the fly… saw that all the time at corporate.

    thanks for sharing! glad it's working at thomas nelson!

  • http://human3rror.com John

    love the first thought about how leaders typically become leaders and how they answer q’s on the fly… saw that all the time at corporate.

    thanks for sharing! glad it’s working at thomas nelson!

  • http://www.aaronblevins.com/ Aaron Blevins

    I think you are dead on Michael. It reminds me of a similar principle I read in Tim Sanders' book "Love is the Killer App" – In regards to sales he says "The traditional self-focused selling approach is no longer effective because today's new buyers are unwilling to follow you. They don't want to be 'sold.' They want to make educated buying decisions. To make a sale, you must join them on their buying path."

    I think the new model of how leaders are leading is a much more effective model because when you allow the people under you to lead, it creates and adds value to them as the employee. Being able to participate on a team and give valued input can give even the most grumpy employee a little pep in their step and drive them to work a little harder.

    Seeing Leaders lead with the desire to add value to their people and not just the bottom line puts me in an incredible mood :). Keep up the good work!

  • http://www.aaronblevins.com Aaron Blevins

    I think you are dead on Michael. It reminds me of a similar principle I read in Tim Sanders’ book “Love is the Killer App” – In regards to sales he says “The traditional self-focused selling approach is no longer effective because today’s new buyers are unwilling to follow you. They don’t want to be ‘sold.’ They want to make educated buying decisions. To make a sale, you must join them on their buying path.”

    I think the new model of how leaders are leading is a much more effective model because when you allow the people under you to lead, it creates and adds value to them as the employee. Being able to participate on a team and give valued input can give even the most grumpy employee a little pep in their step and drive them to work a little harder.

    Seeing Leaders lead with the desire to add value to their people and not just the bottom line puts me in an incredible mood :). Keep up the good work!

  • Gail Hyatt

    I could be wrong, but it doesn't look like the people in this photo have taken the new Blue Jean policy seriously.

  • Gail Hyatt

    I could be wrong, but it doesn’t look like the people in this photo have taken the new Blue Jean policy seriously.

  • http://www.rachelhauck.com/ Rachel Hauck

    Part of any leader's job is to train up other leaders, perhaps a replacement for when they retire.

    Your strategy is teaching others about servant leadership. The best kind.

    Rachel

  • http://www.rachelhauck.com Rachel Hauck

    Part of any leader’s job is to train up other leaders, perhaps a replacement for when they retire.

    Your strategy is teaching others about servant leadership. The best kind.

    Rachel

  • Lisa Rollins

    Great post. Very helpful information to those of us who are new to leadership roles and are wondering how we can possibly have the answers to all the questions. We don't need to have the ALL answers — the group may provide at least some of them (and God will provide the rest!). Plus, discussion is more fun than just bossing people around!

  • Lisa Rollins

    Great post. Very helpful information to those of us who are new to leadership roles and are wondering how we can possibly have the answers to all the questions. We don’t need to have the ALL answers — the group may provide at least some of them (and God will provide the rest!). Plus, discussion is more fun than just bossing people around!

  • http://www.colleencoble.com/ Colleen Coble

    I'm laughing at Gail's comment. When I hear you say your key leadership is 60 people, it makes me realize just large TN really is. And it makes what you've accomplished there all the more impressive! Oh that all of us who have ever worked in a corporate environment would have such a listening boss.

  • http://www.colleencoble.com Colleen Coble

    I’m laughing at Gail’s comment. When I hear you say your key leadership is 60 people, it makes me realize just large TN really is. And it makes what you’ve accomplished there all the more impressive! Oh that all of us who have ever worked in a corporate environment would have such a listening boss.

  • http://www.thewritingspa.com/ Mary DeMuth

    I recently read that folks asked Jesus 183 questions, but he only directly answered three. This has rocked my world. Interestingly, He often (as a rabbi was wont to do) returned a question with a question. He facilitated discussion and thinking that way. He knew that interaction fostered growth. I love that you're fostering that too on the corporate level.

  • http://www.thewritingspa.com Mary DeMuth

    I recently read that folks asked Jesus 183 questions, but he only directly answered three. This has rocked my world. Interestingly, He often (as a rabbi was wont to do) returned a question with a question. He facilitated discussion and thinking that way. He knew that interaction fostered growth. I love that you’re fostering that too on the corporate level.

  • http://JimHughes.blogspot.com/ Jim Hughes

    Great points. Seems that the real challenge is making time and providing opportunities for conversations in corporate settings.

  • http://JimHughes.blogspot.com Jim Hughes

    Great points. Seems that the real challenge is making time and providing opportunities for conversations in corporate settings.

  • http://AndyAndrews.com/ Andy Andrews

    Mike!

    Great post. It just affirms my view that you are on the leading edge of gathering the wisdom needed to create foward motion for everyone who depends upon the success of Thomas Nelson. And there are a lot of us who depend upon your success… It is not just the "employees" of Thomas Nelson whose lives are in the mix. Authors, employees of printing companies, the drivers of delivery trucks, those who work for factories making the vast amounts of paper (even the paper in the restrooms), coffee producers, window cleaners (you have a lot of glass in that building)…many incomes rise and fall according to how Thomas Nelson performs financially. Therefore, I feel safer and more confident knowing that you are actively seeking the best way to do things every day.

    As you know, I work with many different corporations. I am not traditionally gifted in any particular sense. I am seemingly able to scrabble out a living by noticing tiny things that make a big difference to individuals and their companies. What you are truly accomplishing in leading these productive discussions may be missed by some, but I believe the overarching value to be this: In crazy times, people can become desperate for "the answer". Many times, however, in the heat of the moment, "the answer" simply does not yet exist. It is at this point that many companies make horrible choices that ultimately lead to disaster. But the wise leader (even in desperate times) seeks PERSPECTIVE. Perspective produces productive ideas in a calm atmosphere that lead to answers which move everyone and everything forward to success.

    So keep talking. Continue to listen. You are correct…all of us are smarter than some of us.

    Yours,

    Andy

  • http://AndyAndrews.com Andy Andrews

    Mike!

    Great post. It just affirms my view that you are on the leading edge of gathering the wisdom needed to create foward motion for everyone who depends upon the success of Thomas Nelson. And there are a lot of us who depend upon your success… It is not just the “employees” of Thomas Nelson whose lives are in the mix. Authors, employees of printing companies, the drivers of delivery trucks, those who work for factories making the vast amounts of paper (even the paper in the restrooms), coffee producers, window cleaners (you have a lot of glass in that building)…many incomes rise and fall according to how Thomas Nelson performs financially. Therefore, I feel safer and more confident knowing that you are actively seeking the best way to do things every day.

    As you know, I work with many different corporations. I am not traditionally gifted in any particular sense. I am seemingly able to scrabble out a living by noticing tiny things that make a big difference to individuals and their companies. What you are truly accomplishing in leading these productive discussions may be missed by some, but I believe the overarching value to be this: In crazy times, people can become desperate for “the answer”. Many times, however, in the heat of the moment, “the answer” simply does not yet exist. It is at this point that many companies make horrible choices that ultimately lead to disaster. But the wise leader (even in desperate times) seeks PERSPECTIVE. Perspective produces productive ideas in a calm atmosphere that lead to answers which move everyone and everything forward to success.

    So keep talking. Continue to listen. You are correct…all of us are smarter than some of us.

    Yours,

    Andy

  • Joe Sheehan

    Mike,
    Sounds like you are trying to break the old adage “Never speak truth to power”. I’m excited to hear more results and evidence of being able to overcome that. Unfortunately, it easy for leaders to believe they are being told the truth when in fact they aren’t – this is true in business as well as politics. I’d love to see more examples of how you’ve overcome this. Thanks again for a great post.

  • Joe Sheehan

    Mike,
    Sounds like you are trying to break the old adage "Never speak truth to power". I'm excited to hear more results and evidence of being able to overcome that. Unfortunately, it easy for leaders to believe they are being told the truth when in fact they aren't – this is true in business as well as politics. I'd love to see more examples of how you've overcome this. Thanks again for a great post.

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com/ Michael S. Hyatt

    @Andy,

    Thanks for the reminder that there are lots of stakeholders in our outcomes at Thomas Nelson. Your exhortation regarding perspective is especially relevant, given the turbulence in the current environment.

    Thanks again,

    Mike

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael S. Hyatt

    @Andy,

    Thanks for the reminder that there are lots of stakeholders in our outcomes at Thomas Nelson. Your exhortation regarding perspective is especially relevant, given the turbulence in the current environment.

    Thanks again,

    Mike

  • http://flowerdust.net/ anne jackson

    Most of my career, I've been intimidated that I am not the girl with the answers. And I felt I needed to be in order to contribute. It's just been recently that I've noticed I ask a lot of questions, which then provokes a discussion, and somewhere along the way a decision is reached. So now it's something I embrace – the question asker!

  • http://flowerdust.net anne jackson

    Most of my career, I’ve been intimidated that I am not the girl with the answers. And I felt I needed to be in order to contribute. It’s just been recently that I’ve noticed I ask a lot of questions, which then provokes a discussion, and somewhere along the way a decision is reached. So now it’s something I embrace – the question asker!

  • Bryan Catherman

    Michael,

    What efforts are being used to prevent group-think? It's amazing how fast a good idea can become a great idea without regard to unintended consequences when group-think runs unchecked.

  • Bryan Catherman

    Michael,

    What efforts are being used to prevent group-think? It’s amazing how fast a good idea can become a great idea without regard to unintended consequences when group-think runs unchecked.

  • http://www.ad1024.wordpress.com/ Andy Depuy

    What a great leader you are by wanting to know what everyone else thinks and get their opinions instead everything has to go your way, What a godly man you are. i wish I was working @ Thomas Nelson where someone listens, instead of someone telling me that what I think and say is not important. Thanks Michael

  • http://www.ad1024.wordpress.com Andy Depuy

    What a great leader you are by wanting to know what everyone else thinks and get their opinions instead everything has to go your way, What a godly man you are. i wish I was working @ Thomas Nelson where someone listens, instead of someone telling me that what I think and say is not important. Thanks Michael

  • http://www.timothyfish.net Timothy Fish

    I work for a large company. correction. I work for a very large company. I don’t think the kind of leadership you describe is a new concept in churches, but I have noticed a change in the company where I work.

  • http://www.timothyfish.net/ Timothy Fish

    I work for a large company. correction. I work for a very large company. I don't think the kind of leadership you describe is a new concept in churches, but I have noticed a change in the company where I work.

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com/ Michael S. Hyatt

    @Bryan,

    What do you mean by group-think? How would you distinguish this from agreement, consensus, or alignment? If I can better understand what you mean, I can better explain how we handle it.

    Thanks,

    Mike

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael S. Hyatt

    @Bryan,

    What do you mean by group-think? How would you distinguish this from agreement, consensus, or alignment? If I can better understand what you mean, I can better explain how we handle it.

    Thanks,

    Mike

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com/ Michael S. Hyatt

    @Anne,

    Being a good question-asker is a GREAT gift. I wish I had been more of a question-asker earlier in my career.

    Thanks,

    Mike

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael S. Hyatt

    @Anne,

    Being a good question-asker is a GREAT gift. I wish I had been more of a question-asker earlier in my career.

    Thanks,

    Mike

  • http://www.johnpisciotta.com/johnpisciottawordpress/ John Pisciotta

    I want to soak in this for a while…..

  • http://www.johnpisciotta.com/johnpisciottawordpress/ John Pisciotta

    I want to soak in this for a while…..

  • http://www.emergingintofaith.blogspot.com/ Dr. David & Lisa

    This paradigm also works well for whatever we might now call evangelism. Leading by listening makes for an excellent 'new kind of Christian' and helps us engage friends, co-workers and family members authentically.

  • http://www.emergingintofaith.blogspot.com Dr. David & Lisa Frisbie

    This paradigm also works well for whatever we might now call evangelism. Leading by listening makes for an excellent ‘new kind of Christian’ and helps us engage friends, co-workers and family members authentically.

  • http://www.ministrybestpractices.com/ Bill Reichart

    Your thoughts Michael remind me of what I heard at Catalyst about the next style of Leadership, called the Poet and Gardner

    "his Leadership style leads in an age of complexity and doesn't pretend to have all the answers. They are learning, reading and synthesizing information in order to lead (that is the Poet part) and they are most interested in growing people under their care (that is the Gardner part). This style is a leader that asks questions and listens."
    http://www.ministrybestpractices.com/2008/10/cata

  • http://www.ministrybestpractices.com Bill Reichart

    Your thoughts Michael remind me of what I heard at Catalyst about the next style of Leadership, called the Poet and Gardner

    “his Leadership style leads in an age of complexity and doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. They are learning, reading and synthesizing information in order to lead (that is the Poet part) and they are most interested in growing people under their care (that is the Gardner part). This style is a leader that asks questions and listens.”

    http://www.ministrybestpractices.com/2008/10/catalyst-labs-today.html

  • http://www.getyapd.com/ Kevin

    Michael – just want to thank you yet again for a great post. As a young entrepreneur, its great to learn from you. You manage to combine the best of experience and innovation, of certain and curiosity. Cheers.

  • http://www.getyapd.com Kevin

    Michael – just want to thank you yet again for a great post. As a young entrepreneur, its great to learn from you. You manage to combine the best of experience and innovation, of certain and curiosity. Cheers.

  • Jake

    It takes a humble leader to allow himself to be questioned by his subordinates without supressing the unwanted outcomes. And it takes a humble person to ask a question in the sincere quest for information he admits he doesn't have. The senario you have described would be unthinkable to a proud person who is easily threatened because of a large and fragile ego and has to maintain control at all times.

    You are loved and respected, not only for your good ideas, but also for your sweet spirit, the respect you show to all people (regardless of position) and your humility. Now, don't let this give you a big head and make you proud!

  • Jake

    It takes a humble leader to allow himself to be questioned by his subordinates without supressing the unwanted outcomes. And it takes a humble person to ask a question in the sincere quest for information he admits he doesn’t have. The senario you have described would be unthinkable to a proud person who is easily threatened because of a large and fragile ego and has to maintain control at all times.

    You are loved and respected, not only for your good ideas, but also for your sweet spirit, the respect you show to all people (regardless of position) and your humility. Now, don’t let this give you a big head and make you proud!

  • http://karlaakins.com Karla Akins

    This is what makes great teachers and pastors, too. I have long believed in inductive teaching. Of course, it also matters whether or one does it well or poorly. Done well, the rewards are enormous! People get to own their learning. I’m sure it’s the same with CEOing, too. :-)

  • http://karlaakins.com/ Karla Akins

    This is what makes great teachers and pastors, too. I have long believed in inductive teaching. Of course, it also matters whether or one does it well or poorly. Done well, the rewards are enormous! People get to own their learning. I'm sure it's the same with CEOing, too. :-)

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  • thomas

    that is a great article on the paradigm shift from authority based leadership to facilitative leadership – (in my interpretation). Here are some concepts that I think reflect some of the actions you have taken.
    http://kansasleadershipcenter.blogspot.com/2009/0

  • thomas

    that is a great article on the paradigm shift from authority based leadership to facilitative leadership – (in my interpretation). Here are some concepts that I think reflect some of the actions you have taken.
    http://kansasleadershipcenter.blogspot.com/2009/0

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  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/spirospiliadis spirospiliadis

    Improvisation brings order to complexity, complexity is keeping things to ourselves and not having anywhere to share our thoughts, by leading the conversation you are not only allowing it to unfold without a script, but the tendencies is for natural flow of conversation to give us all the meaning we wanted in any part of something weather it be a family, an organization or to ourselves.

    Very well said…

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  • http://twitter.com/KrisHopes Kris Wood

    Excellent insight, Michael. Thanks.  It brought to mind several top leaders who are doing the same approach, though from different environments and very different skill sets. Def a trend worth tracking. 

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Hi Kris,
      Which leaders come to mind for you?

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  • http://twitter.com/tellmisty Misty Williams

    Mike, do you have any preferred resources / books for group facilitation?

  • http://www.coachingreallyworks.com/ Abe S.

    This is incredible. I work in the coaching industry. This approach that you are using is very similar to coaching. 

    It is amazing how powerful questions can do more help people achieve success in the pursuit of personal or common goals rather than simply advising them or telling them what to do.

    There are so many resources within each individual. It’s wonderful to see them come out and be part of the direction their life takes personally as well as with those they work with or for.

  • http://twitter.com/JoshuaLHenry Joshua Lee Henry

    If leadership is about advancing and creating change, what better way to initiate conversations and the exchange of ideas than by asking poignant questions focused around your organizations “hedgehog” concepts. 

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