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The Conversational Leader

The Conversational Leader

By Mary Verstraete

Conversational Leader—does this seem like a soft approach to leadership or never getting to the bottom line to make important decisions? I would suggest that being a conversational leader is one of the most important competencies in a leader’s skill set. When we think about it:

What happens without conversation? Nothing.

It takes conversation to achieve understanding, gain clarity, or generate steps forward. Conversation is a must…the important questions to be asking yourself when it comes to conversation are:

  • What kind of conversation do you want to generate?
  • What outcome is important?
  • How important is trust in the relationship?

I’ve worked for non-profit and for-profit organizations since 1974 and I’ve found that communication in a church, parachurch organization or a business have the same nagging communication obstacles—

Communication that is not clear, not adequate, and not effective for the situation.

In my career I’ve experienced conversations from opposite ends of the gamut. One supervisor set up weekly meetings to ensure that I was well resourced, had the opportunity to troubleshoot difficult situations and talk about challenges—he was invested in me, my effectiveness, and success. Did I look forward to these conversations? Absolutely. Was I an engaged employee? Absolutely? Did I feel valued? Absolutely. The complete opposite was a supervisor who “allowed” 30 minutes for a weekly meeting with me. His philosophy: keep me filled in on anything important—in fact, only what is important, do your job, do it right, and if you don’t know how to do something, figure it out...just don’t be wrong. Did I look forward to these conversations? No. Did I want to work hard? Yes…if I wanted to keep my job. Did I feel valued? Not particularly.

Fact is—there was communication in both those scenarios. The quality of the conversation was vastly different and the experience encountered in the conversations was also vastly different. Gallup's State of the American Workplace Report shows the effects of poor supervision:

  • Of the approximately 100 million people in America who hold full-time jobs, 30 million (only 30%) are engaged and inspired at work and assumed to have a great boss.
  • At the other end of the spectrum are roughly 20 million (20%) employees who are actively disengaged and have bosses that make them miserable and roam the halls spreading discontent.
  • The other 50 million (50%) American workers are not engaged. They’re just “kind of present", but not inspired by their work or their managers.

Boris Groysberg, a professor in Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business School (HBS) and Michael Slind a communication professor, discuss in their book, Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversations to Power Their Organizations, why it makes sense to adopt the principles of what they call, organizational conversation.

As part of the authors’ attempts to identify communication best practices, they interviewed more than 100 company communication professionals in diverse organizations—large and small, blue chip and start-up, non-profit and for profit, U.S. and international. What they found was communication that had once been an institutional function, was evolving at many companies into a collection of practices that extended across the entirety of organizational life.

They widened their research and interviews to senior executives with general-management responsibilities. A reoccurring theme came to the surface: Conversation.

They found that leaders were valuing interaction that resembles the model of two people talking and were extending efforts to “have a conversation” with their people or to “advance the conversation” within their organization.

Another phrase for this: conversational leadership. The executives described fostering and facilitating conversation-like practices throughout their companies with the characteristics of what Groysberg and Slind categorized as being more intimate, more interactive, more inclusive, and more intentional.

These practices were enabling company’s to achieve higher levels of trust, improve operation efficiency, gain greater motivation and commitment among employees. They go on to say that the power of organizational conversation isn’t’ the kind of power that manifests itself as control over a person or process. Rather, it’s the kind of conversation that makes a person or process effective because the conversation is energy...is fuel.


Conversational Leader—yes, it may seem like a soft approach to leadership but just as professional coaches understanding the tremendous benefit of conversational leadership, more and more organizations are finding that concept to be true because of increased company effectiveness and success that positively affects their financial bottom line.

What does this say to us as professional coaches?

  1. There is a need for organizational coaches.
  2. There is a need for skilled coaches.
  3. There is a need for us as coaches to consistently hone our skills.
  4. There is a need for us as coaches to stay current on best practices of organizational communication.