Mastering the art of conversation a must for good leaders

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Marketing & Business Development,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership] November 27, 2019

Engaging in quality conversations with team members can improve the performance of staff and the profitability of the firm, but remember that the types of conversations you have can vary dramatically depending on the particular person and their experience, writes Keegan Luiters.

The scope of responsibility of leaders in law firms generally includes (and exceeds) strategy, business development, maintaining technical expertise, delivering client work and managing people tasks.

When dealing with people matters, there are very few things that have a linear ‘cause and effect’ relationship. People are simply too complex and there are too many variables. There are, however, some strategies based on research that you can apply within your practice.

We can say with confidence that there are consistent and strong correlations across industries, countries and organisation type that link developing capability with getting the best people, engaging them and helping them deliver strong results. What has been observed is that when leaders support team members to build their capability, those team members are generally more engaged, better performing and part of more profitable organisations.

How does a leader put this into practice and what are the things they need to do? In short, leaders must have good-quality conversations. It has been suggested many times (including in a 2012 Harvard Business Review article of the same name) that “leadership is a conversation”. This can be taken both figuratively and literally. For individual leaders, this includes having conversations that specifically support capability development in the people they lead.
Based on comprehensive research by Gartner in 2018 involving 7300 employees and managers across a variety of industries, here are recommendations for four types of conversations that leaders can use to develop capability in current working environments.

Conductor

These are conversations where the leader takes a directive approach and calls on their own knowledge and experience to tell the team member what actions to take.

Cheerleader

These are conversations in which the leader is supportive and encouraging of their team members. They highlight the aspects of the team member’s performance that ought to be continued or extended.

Coach

These are conversations that provide the team member with the space to come up with their own answers. They use questions and listening as the primary tools to enable capability to be built.

Connector

These are the conversations where the leader acknowledges that neither they nor the team member is best positioned to find the solution, but the leader is able to facilitate an introduction to someone who is better able to support the team member.

Each of these conversations builds capability within team members in different ways. The challenge is that they work best in varied circumstances. For example, it may be that a new lawyer who has never experienced anything like their current situation is best served with a Conductor conversation with a high degree of guidance. This may relieve their anxiety and allow them to perform well. In three years’ time, that same lawyer (or a more experienced colleague tomorrow) may benefit from a Coach conversation that taps into knowledge and experience they have developed.

Just as the best golfers are able to use every club in their bag and make good decisions about the club to use for any given circumstance, the best leaders are highly skilled at each of these types of conversations, as well as being attuned to which conversation is required at any given time.

If all of this sounds like a lot of work – and a lot of time – then the Gartner research has a few doses of good news. First, the research did not identify any correlation between the time spent having conversations and performance outcomes. Instead, there was a link between the type and quality of conversations that managers had with their direct reports.

If, like the vast majority of leaders, you are short on time, there is even more good news. Not only is constant coaching a drain on leader time, it tends to also drain the performance of teams. Combined, this presents a fairly compelling case to keep capability conversations focused on quality rather than quantity.

Second, Connector conversations are most closely linked to high performance. Aiming to be a Connector in conversations is the recommendation that emerges from the Gartner research. Where a leader is well positioned to provide an answer, they will do so. Equally, there is significant and sustainable value in being able to connect your team with the answers when the issue extends beyond a leader’s expertise or capacity.

Ultimately, if leaders across your firm are able to focus on having high-quality conversations with your team, this will drive positive outcomes. Choose the right way to build capability by factoring in their needs, your expertise and who is best positioned to help them. Get this mix right and you are likely to see a more highly engaged and high-performing team.

Keegan Luiters is an independent consultant who works with leaders, teams and organisations to lift their performance. Visit www.keeganluiters.com for more information or connect with him on LinkedIn.