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Conversations in Management - Irv Grousbeck

Course Summary

Here is a course summary of Conversations in Management taught Spring 2018 by revered GSB professor Irv Grousbeck. The course is designed around practicing difficult conversations and as such, I’ve arranged this summary chronologically, offering some lessons learned in each part of a difficult conversation, from the preparation on through the follow-up.

The overall message of the course is, while no conversation will be perfect and each will be different (“no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”), it’s important to lead with the relationship and lean into difficult conversations. As Tony Detter explained, we should err on the side of greater communication, exercising “everyday leadership.”

Preparing for the Conversation

Know what success looks like. Any difficult conversation will likely sit against a backdrop of earlier ones. To visualize success, start with one’s desired outcome and work backward to acceptable outcomes by examining one’s redlines.

After understanding the range of acceptable possibilities, the next step is to understand the way the conversation will evolve. A good manager considers their role in the problem and anticipates potential responses. One should know their employees’ expectations and have appropriately investigated the situation to know what they can offer. Preparation is the key to success (“War is won before the first battle is fought.” - Sun Tzu).

In preparing, a manager should determine the time and place of the conversation. Is it best on the phone or in the office, before or after a meeting? To assess this, it’s important to know whether time is working for or against you. Who should be informed of the decision and who should be included in the conversation? For example, one may wish to include a middle manager in the discussion or might keep the conversation more direct.

After understanding the goals of a conversation and shaping its context, practice is essential. As Tony Detter said, “no one was born to luge.” Deliberate practice allows us to refine our approach, better understand the other party and their potential responses, overcome anxiety, and develop the clearest message. Like Henry Kissinger, we should be so prepared we could ask for “any questions for my answers.” Opening the Conversation

Call out the elephant in the room. Be straightforward and transparent about the real issue at hand. Is it a big issue or a small one? Is it easily correctable? Identify the issue and lead with the relationship. Present directness with respect, couple strength with warmth. It’s also the best approach to selling, as Ben Stein explained, the two rules to selling are 1) listen to your buyer and 2) bond with your buyer by being a friend.

If the relationship is strong, managers can skip the positive preamble and jump to the heart of the matter, meeting the other party where they are. Openness and vulnerability can be powerful, but one must be careful not to display uncertainty. Managers can explain their role in the problem and their appreciation for why others might feel as they do, but should always strive to be clear. Is this a leadership conversation or a coaching conversation? Has a final decision been made?

The Middle of the Conversation

While there are many ways to improve conversations as they progress, three stand out.

  1. Listen: After delivering a clear message upfront, many conversations go best if the other party speaks for more than half the conversation. As Mark Twain wrote, “no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.” Listening makes others feel respected, helps build the relationship, and helps managers better understand where to take the conversation.
  2. Adapt: Listening also helps us gather new information. Each employee is unique and the best managers capitalize on their individual abilities.
  3. Avoid Mistakes: Role plays allow us to course correct and learn from our mistakes. For example, don’t call out information asymmetries and ask questions you know the answer to. Don’t state the obvious or offer platitudes. Never recruit for an unopen position. And avoid using “but.”

Ending the Conversation and Follow-Up

Conversations build on one another, apart from those around termination. Therefore, keep your word. Just as it is important to be clear upfront, be clear at the end about expectations and milestones. As Tony Detter said, don’t play “wrong rock,” assuming employees know what you need. Keep a focus on the future, especially in difficult moments, because there is hope in a better future. After the conversation, do the necessary follow-up. Send an email to document the conversation, especially if it’s performance related or you need to inform others, like a division manager. If you need to make reference calls after an interview, consider ways to get people to give you a complete picture, such as asking, “What suggestions do you have in managing this person?”

In the end, practice is the key to improving one’s conversations. No conversation will be perfect, but when you lead with the relationship and lean into difficult conversations you can mold success out of imperfection. While mistakes will come, people will always respect personal integrity. So good managers must own their words and do what they say.