Leaders should realize that companies are fundamentally linguistic entities.
In 2004, when Brad Mills became the CEO of Lonmin, the British mining company operating in South Africa, it faced a depressing future. It was so rife with conflicts among management, labor, the local community, and dysfunctional organizational silos that it was hard to discern any collective vision for the company at all. So, as one of his first acts, Mills brought together 100 leaders from the company, along with unions, tribes, and the local community, to participate in a two-day-long designed conversation. The goal of the engagement? To envision a new, compelling future for Lonmin and its stakeholders.
Mills appealed to what the assembled representatives had in common — their humanity — promoting the idea that people can create something exciting by working together as human beings. During the next two days, conversations turned from initial animosity toward what they could build together. The stakeholders began to see themselves — their interests as well as their potential contributions — in Lonmin’s future.
Mills’ approach relies on a uniquely powerful perspective that is rare among executives: the ability to see an organization as a fundamentally linguistic entity. From this vantage, conversation is the primary organizing principle of organizational management. By “conversation,” we mean any linguistic means of communication, ranging from speaking and listening to writing and images. Put simply, a company is the sum of all corporate dialogues, what we call a “network of conversations.”
Conversation in the Leadership Context
Researchers have noted that compliance-based, command-and-control organizations are less viable in today’s global, pluralistic business networks where commercial success may depend on collaborative value creation with partners and customers. The “network of conversations” framing is a logical extension of this perspective. It points toward a fundamental corporate reality: Conversations, whether acknowledged or not, are going on all the time; unacknowledged conversations, however, are not being managed or led. Managers assume that passing along memos, directives, and policies constitutes “conversation,” but often these become mere “topics” of the real, informal conversations that are already occurring in the larger network. Recognizing and managing conversational networks can enrich and accelerate diverse information flows.
This ubiquity of conversations makes the “network of conversations” perspective not only powerful but also an imperative for managers and leaders. While there are many ways to classify conversations (functional, legal, gossip, etc.), we want to highlight three fundamental conversational dimensions — leadership, managerial, and individual — to show how they can be aligned for greater organizational performance.
Conversations That Connect Future and Present
Leadership conversations are concerned with creating a compelling organizational future, such as the discussion Brad Mills led at Lonmin. Senior leadership is responsible for securing a company’s long-term competitive outlook, usually expressed as the corporate-level strategy, vision, and purpose. Although these conversations may begin in the C-suite, their ultimate success depends on engaging and energizing the stakeholders who must act to realize that future. In our consulting and executive education engagements, we have found that, in order to foster engagement, stakeholders need to see an opportunity for self-expression and a chance to make a meaningful contribution to the future. More than that, they need to believe they can fulfill their own concerns by pursuing the corporate vision.
Managerial conversations are aimed not at the long-term future but at the short-term future, which is organized in projects and corporate initiatives that are ultimately expressed in results. These projects and initiatives come from, and are led by, the needs of the long-term future, not by management. Looking back from the future, managers see what needs to be in place if the created future is to come to fruition. They then facilitate the conversations needed to realize the near-term future.
Individual conversations are about the future called “today.” In high-performing organizations, individuals get what they need to do today from their projects and initiatives, which in turn are determined by the needs of the long-term future. Ensuring that conversations about today are aligned with conversations about the long term is a key leadership challenge.
The Leadership Challenge
The challenge for leaders is to identify and cocreate an inspiring future that informs the conversations taking place at all levels of the organization. Creating a future is different from “getting buy-in” on a corporate vision statement. In our experience, buy-in often extracts little more than compliance from workers, whereas a future that employees feel a part of and find compelling unleashes commitment and enthusiasm. The case of Apple CEO Tim Cook illustrates this difference.
Today, Cook leads the most valuable company in the world. But when Apple cofounder and former CEO Steve Jobs tried to recruit him from Compaq Computer back in 1998, Cook’s peers told him he’d be foolish to consider a move to Apple, which 20 years ago was failing. Jobs convinced Cook to board a potentially sinking ship by inviting him to find himself in a future that would use his unique talents as a partner. As Cook remembers, “All of a sudden he’s talking about his strategy and his vision. I’d always thought that following the herd was not a good thing … He was doing something totally different … I looked at the problems Apple had, and I thought, I can make a contribution here…. I’m going for it.” Cook became Apple’s senior VP of worldwide operations in 1998, and eventually CEO following Jobs’ death in 2011.
Of course, leaders can anticipate some initial skepticism when introducing conversations about the future. Luckily, we have found that a relatively small critical mass of employees is all that is needed to unleash an organizational transformation. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute research recently supported our intuition: It found that when just 10% of a population holds an unshakable belief, the majority of their community will adopt it.
From Lonmin’s dismal prospects when Mills became CEO, the company and its stakeholders created a better future. Within a few years, Lonmin was outperforming in key metrics like platinum production, mining safety, union relations, and community support. And the stock price more than tripled. A prosperous future had arrived.
And then a new future imposed itself. As the economy turned, platinum prices plunged by 57%, labor relations soured, and a rival miner launched a hostile takeover bid. And Mills was out as CEO.
Luckily for Mills, futures — even career futures — are a renewable resource. Mills went on to become the founder and managing director of Plinian Capital, an organization fostering new futures by investing and turning around undervalued opportunities throughout the mining value chain.
In businesses as varied as shopping malls, coal mines, diesel vehicles, and taxis, business futures are expiring all around us at an accelerating rate. Leading organizational conversations is becoming one of the most important, and valuable, skills in modern management.
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