The Speaking of Effective Leaders

In committed speaking, if you are not sure you can deliver a promise, it’s better if you don’t make it in the first place…

This blog reflects on communication that makes a difference…

As always, I was inspired by the updates shared and conversations held at our AWiB 2014 General Assembly. I celebrated with others the fact that two ladies, AWiB members, stood up and declared interest and commitment to serve as new Board members. For the second year during a General Assembly meeting, a new culture is being created, with members offering to be part of the Board members team, rather than being invited or requested to.

Before their final pledge to become Board Members, AWiB Founder and Executive Director Nahu Senay Girma asserted that serving in this way requires commitment and dedication: Board Members in the past have resigned because of the amount of time this role entails, and therefore, if one was not sure of being of delivering, it was better to recant now.

Leadership in Action

Such happenings took me to reflect on leadership, and more specifically, leadership in action, as per my learning from coaches Allan Henderson, Sharon Knoll and Joseph Friedman. In this case, when talking about leadership, we are referring to a way of thinking, listening, speaking and acting in a way that mobilizes the self and others into action, for the creation of new possibilities and a new future. As leaders and managers of our lives, businesses and organizations, the way we communicate matters, since, as the saying goes, ‘it’s not people we manage, but the communication we have with the people we manage.’

Conversations of Leaders

In this blog, I will be exploring a way of communicating and speaking that makes a difference, a way of speaking that can generate results and change. One of those includes encouraging teams to generate creative ideas (through Conversations for Possibilities), translated into checking what is feasible (Conversations for Opportunity), and into Conversations for Action.

Conversations for Action

Conversations for Action are conversations that are well-conducted, that result in clear commitments, to specific results by a certain time.  Such conversations aren’t about action; they are action. Powerful leaders are focused on moving the action forward.  Conversations for Action do just that.

Conversations for Action require:

  1. A background of relatedeness appropriate to the size of the request – if we require a taxi ride we may not need to have a great, deep relationship with the taxi driver. However, to make a vision come true, or to handle a complex challenge, we may require a solid relationship with our colleagues.
  2. Committed Speaking: that both parties to the conversation are committed to their Word and  are sincere.

When sitting during our General Assembly meeting, I heard inspired members lit up by vision and a resolve to make a difference, and clarity on who would do what to move conversations forward.

How do you hold a Conversation for Action?

Conversations for action are composed of requests and promises.

A request is a statement asking for actions by specific individuals to produce a measurable result in a specified time frame. The speaking for soliciting a complete promise is: “I request (measurable result) by (time.)

Requests at Different Levels

Requests have different levels of intensity:

  1. Invitations: once the request is made, acceptance or decline by the responder are equally OK. The person making the invitation is committed to choice. The outcome is choice, and the person accepts or declined the invitation. For example, I may hold a big birthday party for my son, and may invite many friends of mine. I would totally understand if they don’t turn up.
  2. Requests:    the requester prefers an acceptance. For example, in a team meeting I may request a colleague to do a touch-up to my report to make it look better. I would love to get their help, but it’s alright if they can’t give their time.
  3. Demands: requester will expect or accept a “yes” — failure to accept will result in a break in the relationship between requestor and listener.

Regarding demands, in the case someone, say, a manager genuinely cannot accept a ‘no’ to a request, her is she is, in fact making a demand. The demand could be as follows: ‘we have a very important new client, and will need to work double time to host an event they have asked us to hold this Wednesday. I’m aware we’re all already working more than usual, and this is a busy season, but this is something we need to do, and I demand your input.

Sometimes, demands are legitimate tools of management. They are more powerful when they are clearly articulated as such.

Common breakdowns in employing Conversations for Action include: not asking for what one really wants; neglecting to specify who and by when; and asking for behavior change (thus making the other wrong), rather than for action.

I would like to pause here and ask: what elements in our culture may be holding us back from making clear requests and promises, without leaving things up, unclear, up in the air?

On the Other Side of Requests

Back to the AWiB General Assembly: requests and invitations to potential Board Members were followed by clear responses – promises or declines.

Indeed, requests are made to solicit a promise. A promise is a commitment to produce specific action, a measurable result in a specified time frame. It is a committed and complete response to a request. It is a spoken commitment to another for a result in time, the statement of a specific action that will occur by a specific time, under specific conditions. It is focused and concrete, and is the tool for moving words into action.

Too often, responses to requests end up being:

  • .Ordinary: avoiding committed response (‘Maybe’, “That shouldn’t be a problem”), or
  • .Incomplete responses (‘I’ll get back to you on that’, or ‘I promise the specific result by some specific point in time.’)

In this way, we may we end up avoiding giving committed responses, which can often be the case.

Responses that bring results are specific and have a time frame. They are promises.

To reiterate: a promise is a spoken commitment to another for a result in time.  A promise is the statement of a specific action that will occur by a specific time, under specific conditions. It is focused and concrete. It is the tool for moving a declaration into action.

Promises/ conversations for Action are spoken in the form of:

“I promise to (measurable result) by (time).

Other committed responses that produce clarity are:

  • .‘I accept’
  • .‘I decline’
  • .‘I counter-offer’ (negotiate alternative results and/or time)
  • .‘I promise to respond at a specific time’ (e.g. ‘I will respond to your requests by tomorrow at 10 am.’

Leaders need to listen for and initiate complete promises and requests. Even when there is an acceptance, great leaders and managers check again, to make sure the other is clear on the commitment made, and the set up to follow to realize it.

Indeed, during the General Assembly, other members were invited to join as Board Members and either declined for personal commitments, or promised to get back to all of us at a later date. I appreciated ad respected such exchanges because I saw they were informed by.


What to pay Attention to

Indeed, promises can only exist in an environment where individuals place a high value on the integrity of their speaking, and they are committed to the commitments they make; they are not so-called “windbags” (making empty promises).  It does not mean they keep all their commitments.  It means they take their commitments seriously.  When they see they are unable to meet their commitments, they communicate about that to the appropriate people responsibly.

In other words: effective management requires going beyond the notion that it is good to keep promises and bad to fail to fulfill them, or penalizing others for declining requests or revoking promise.  A great manager consciously creates a milieu where the integrity of communication is highly valued.

Integrity in communication happens when there is a response to each request. Every response to a request moves the work forward powerfully, including the refusals.  One roadblock to the effectiveness of the tool of a request is that it is unsafe to say “no” in many organizations.  An effective communicator can create an environment in which there is room for authentic declining: there is freedom to decline without punishment, with the outcome being that the relationship remains intact.  A true “no” is much more useful than a false or grudging “yes,” which only later reveals itself in the form of late or incomplete work.

When all the elements of committed speaking are present in an organization, the quality of communication takes off and the velocity of action increases dramatically.  Meetings cease to be awash in everyone’s opinions and reaction only, and the conversations that occur actually move work forward.  New possibilities are declared and a sense of inspiration and freshness can grow.  As staffs become comfortable with making promises and requests, there is an inevitable increase in the velocity of accomplishment.


Practicing Conversations for Action

Think of a request you might make for something to move the work of your team forward (in work you are supervising, on a project you are sharing with of senior level management). Reflect: is it a request you need to make? A demand or an invitation? What kind of response are you ready to receive?

To recap, for these conversations to happen, it is important to:

  • Create a safe environment for people to express clear commitments.
  • Manage conversations to produce powerful declarations and complete, precise promises and requests.

To continue to practice conversations for action one can:

  • Continue identifying instances in our work as managers in which we can use this language to supervise our colleagues,
  • Track promises and requests made in each meeting as a measure of meeting productivity.
  • Indicate respect for people’s declarations, promises and requests by listening to them intently, writing them down accurately, and having them typed up and shared appropriately.
  • One can continue using precise forms of committed speaking until they become second nature.

There are no short cuts to this practice, and practicing committed speaking requires rigour and awareness. I myself have realized how much easier my work becomes when I practice committed speaking, and when others around me have this habit too – words and ‘empty’ promises are rather, translated into action and results.

I would appreciate learning from you: when is it that you use committed speaking, or are planning to start doing so?