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Leadership Through Conversations


Tue Sep 02 2014

Leadership Through Conversations

I recently had the privilege of facilitating a webinar, “Conversations are the Work of a Leader,” for Georgetown University alumni.  

In spite of my limitations as a presenter, there was a lot of appreciative feedback about the messages conveyed: That as senior managers and leaders, we need to be connected with our people—and not just through email, newsletters and town hall meetings. We need to get out of our offices, off our executive floors, and speak with the people who are doing the work of our companies.


There were poignant comments and questions during and after the event:

  • “I wish my boss was listening. He doesn’t get it.”

  • “How do we get this message to our senior managers? They spend most of their time talking to each other, not to us.”

Clearly this subject sparked interest. People feel strongly that conversations are vitally important. We need to understand that conversations truly are the work of a leader.

There is the adage, “Managers focus are results; leaders focus on people.” A better concept is “leaders focus on results and people.” In other words, in today’s hyper-competitive business environment, we must hit our financial goals or we may not keep our jobs.

But how are we going to keep our good people energized and engaged if we don’t invest the time to know them as our team members and what is important to them?

Every business is a people business


Our relationships with clients are essential to our success—with external clients and, equally important, with internal clients, our people. Yes, we must think of our people as our internal clients. They are the ones doing the work of our companies and they deserve our attention and respect. The better the quality of our relationships, the better we’ll do as leaders and in our businesses.

Morale in business today is low. Data from various resources reveal that some 40 percent of the workforce does not feel appreciated and 70 percent of the workforce does not feel fully engaged.

In my leadership consulting and coaching work, I repeatedly hear comments like, “I see our top people occasionally in the lobby of our building. They seldom come out of the executive wing.”

For example, in The 100/0 Principle: The Secret to Relationships, Al Ritter shares how he lost his team members. They didn’t want to work for him any longer because he was driving them hard without relating to them as people.

Indeed, senior managers spend up to 50 percent of their time in meetings, and much of their remaining time speaking with each other, on calls, and in front of their computers. Most of their communication is through emails or is delegated to those who report to them.


But our people need to feel they are:

  • appreciated and valued

  • heard, and their ideas matter

  • an important member of a team

  • learning, growing, and advancing.

We have to free ourselves up. We have to make our meetings shorter, more efficient and more productive, and then take the time for conversations with our people.

Servant leadership is worth studying

Everyone wants to be successful, and their professional development is our responsibility as well as theirs. Servant leadership is a philosophy that can help us be most effective with our leadership responsibilities. It is about serving first, serving those with whom we work, and that is more important than the power and perhaps material possessions that result from our position.

A test of our being a servant leader is whether or not our people feel they are learning, growing, and succeeding.  And the way we help our people do that is by being there with them—mentoring, teaching, encouraging, coaching them, helping them feel appreciated, inspired, and empowered.

Let’s think of how we use our time and energy as an investment, and that we need to invest in our two top priorities:

  1. our results

  2. our relationships.

Start the conversation

Successful people with whom I work have friendly, productive conversations that lead to new clients and assignments and improve morale. They drop by people’s desks and they pick up the phone rather than emailing, and ask how they are doing. They say “Good job” and “Thank you” and “What can we do for you? What are your ideas for our company?”

A short, good quality conversation is better than no conversation. So even when travelling, we can make calls from taxis and airports, check in with our people, let them know we are thinking about them and that they are valued.

Of course, there are difficult conversations that we must have—and that many of us avoid. I could write a whole new article about the art of difficult conversations. Rather, I recommend that you read Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott.

Scott reminds readers that “the conversation is the relationship” and the “work of a leader.” She adds: “Treat each conversation as the most important conversation we will ever have with that person, as it may well be.”

Remember: Good conversations mean leaders ask questions, do only 20 percent of the talking, and listen to understand and learn.

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