Philip Houghton: Business leaders use conversation to drive success: here are 5 things they do

2017 was another busy year. Looking back, you covered lots of ground, delivered plenty of value and made a real difference to your organisation. However, as you enter 2018 you may wish you could be more strategic; finding more time to think ahead and shape the future. How best, then, to make the shift?

One way to become even more strategic is by being more intentional about your conversations. Research shows most leaders spend around 75 per cent of their time in conversations – that’s a powerful insight because it clearly demonstrates where leaders’ time goes. It follows on, therefore, that the most effective leaders use many of those same conversations to create different outcomes.

A recognition that ‘the conversation’ is really where change starts to happen also means breaking the ‘back-to-back’ meeting culture most leaders are engaged in. If the leader’s role is fundamentally strategic – and change happens in conversations – then the most strategic leaders surely have fewer, more value-adding, conversations.

With a paradigm shift from ‘getting things done’ to ‘changing the conversation’, it becomes clear that leaders will be most effective when using some simple conversational frameworks to guide them.

Created by our founder Graham Alexander in the 80’s, the GROW model helps leaders think about the conversations they most want to have or find themselves in – and how to elevate them to a more strategic level. There are five areas to keep in mind:

1. Choose your Topic carefully

A conversation is only as good as the topic you’re are discussing. And a topic is only strategic if it addresses a fundamental of your business.

Many of our conversations, particularly with senior people, will be largely about framing the right topic by placing it in the wider context, exploring what stakeholders want and need, and seeing the bigger, strategic picture.

2. Clarify aspirations and Goals

The right topic, if strategic, provides a great springboard from which to explore aspirations and goals: ‘What does ‘good’ look and feel like?’ ‘Where do we want to get to?’ ‘How will we know we’re really making progress?’ These are valuable questions because they keep the focus firmly on the future.

3. Shift focus to the current Reality

“We change things by first seeing them the way they really are.” This is a quote I use often with leaders as it can be a real challenge to see things objectively. All too often we move into assumptions and established mindsets, seeing things as we want to, or as people tell us they are. With practice, we can learn to challenge without creating defensiveness. And putting ourselves in others shoes can also be invaluable. However, as leaders we must stay focused on the really big issues that will move the business forward; taking care not to get sucked into the weeds. That’s someone else’s job.

4. Options conversations open up possibilities

Only once a clear a picture of reality is established, can leaders move on to options and choices. There’s a temptation to become tactical again but keep conversations at big picture level by asking, for example, the more strategic ‘What’s possible?’ rather than the tactical ‘What can we do?’ Options conversations are also a great opportunity to coach people to be more ambitious, more creative and to uncover inherent blockers and barriers. ‘What would we do if we could do anything? What if there were no constraints? What if it didn’t matter if we failed’ are all great questions for opening up possibilities and encouraging more strategic thinking.

5. Wrap-Up – turn options into tangible reality

Finally, we use the wrap-up part of the conversation to turn ‘options’ into tangible actions, commitments and timescales. ‘How do we move this to action?’, or ‘What are some first steps we can take?’ will help to get the ball rolling. If we have organised people around us we often don’t need to do much more. However, if our people lack discipline, or are already overwhelmed with other activities, we may need to help bring a bit more structure and order, or help re-prioritise. But that’s another conversation.

Using this framework to structure future conversations will mean your precious time can be spent keeping the focus on important strategic issues such as your vision, customers and the wider commercial landscape. Finally, it’s not all about what you talk about, but also how you talk about it.