In this series of articles, I’d like to focus on some practical advice for new or aspiring managers, based on The Six Conversations of a Brilliant Manager* by Alan J Sears. It’s an immensely readable book, structured in two parts: first, an engaging fictional story of a new manager (of a team of six), followed by a ‘simple reference guide’ as the author calls it which recaps the key messages.
Alan’s book is based on the concept that many management conversations with the individuals in your team have a structure, which if followed, makes it more likely you will achieve a good outcome for both you and the team member.
Working with leaders and managers from all walks of life, I came to realise that what makes some people more successful than others is the quality of the conversations they have with others… These high performers know that they need to take a different approach to different conversations – and that the simplest way to do that is to have a different structure for each conversation.”
Part of the reason I enjoyed it so much is that it echoes a number of the themes which resonate strongly with us at Protagion, including treating your team members as individuals, adapting your approach to each of them, and allowing them to shine, and taking charge of your own career proactively and not expecting that your organisation will manage it for you.
Early in the book, the fictional manager realised that he “needed to have a completely different conversation with everyone in the team” to make the difference his company needed. He’s an endearing protagonist for the book’s messages, a good-natured and supportive manager who describes his thought pattern with: “I worked out what I thought the problem was, and then where I should start and finish the conversation in order to get to where I wanted to be – and where I wanted the other person to be.” He even chooses specific locations for conversations in the story based on who he would be speaking with, and the nature of the discussion.
Read more for an introduction to the six conversations, covering coaching, taking responsibility, addressing performance/behaviour, delegation, career paths, and performance appraisals, followed by more of my thoughts on the book and other (related) approaches like Patrick Lencioni’s famous business fable The Five Dysfunctions of a Team*. This article then goes into more detail on four of the conversations, leaving delegation and career conversations for future articles in the series.
The Six Conversations
My preferred names for the conversations covered in the book, with the questions that Alan labels them each with, are:
1) Coaching: ‘What can you do about that?’
2) Taking Responsibility: ‘Who should really own this?’
3) Addressing Performance/Behaviour: ‘How should we be behaving?’
4) Delegation: ‘Who’s really doing this?’
5) Career Path: ‘Where are we heading?’
6) Performance Appraisal: ‘How are we doing?’
The book also emphasises that it’s important not to mix different conversations together, but instead have separate conversations for separate purposes. The manager reminds himself during the story: “One step at a time… This was the conversation I wanted to have… don’t clutter it up with other stuff”.
Later in this article, I summarise the conversation structures for four of these: coaching, taking responsibility, addressing performance/behaviour and performance appraisals, splitting the other two into separate follow-on articles.
It’s also clear that Alan’s advice is born from experience: consulting to businesses, coaching individuals, and delivering workshops – similar to the real-world sense I got from, and my praise of, Tara Mohr’s work. As Alan says, “in the course of doing all those other things… the concept crystallised over time”.
There are sadly some small errors or inconsistencies in the Kindle version I read, which would have benefited from editing, although these don’t detract from the main messages. And, while Part II of the book offers a useful summary (and it provided much of the content for this series of articles), I found it too short (!) and would’ve liked more there. Perhaps other situations, or further takeaways? That part is indeed ‘a simple reference guide’ though.
Overall, I think it’s a great book for new and aspiring managers, especially those who are keen for practical frameworks to try out with their team members. Very worthwhile for those who want more than fluffy rah-rah about management – hopefully the conversation structures later in the article will give you a taste of how grounded it is. I look forward to more of Alan’s writing, including his tales of brilliant leaders, and brilliant virtual managers.
Other (related) approaches
Alan’s book reminded me of a number of other concepts I’ve come across in my career so far. The first, and strongest echo, was of Patrick Lencioni’s business fable approach. In another fictional tale, Patrick describes five elements which lead to team dysfunction, conveying a simple and accessible model of teamwork applicable to the business world and more broadly (such as team sports). In it, he argues that team dysfunction stems from five cascading factors, each of which can damage the chances of success:
4) Avoidance of accountability: peers or superiors aren’t held to account on broken promises or counterproductive behaviour by everyone in the team, leading to low standards
5) Inattention to collective results because team members are focusing on their personal success, status or ego before team success
Given their storytelling structure, the styles of the books are similar, and Alan’s conversations on ‘Who should really own this?’ (accountability / taking responsibility) and ‘How should we be behaving?’ (addressing performance/behaviour) can assist in addressing some of these team dysfunctions.
Another approach which Alan’s book reminded me of is Situational Leadership Theory, which I discussed in more detail in “Riding the Learning Curve & Disrupting Yourself”. Unsurprisingly, it also argues that you should adapt your style to the individual or group for the task or function that needs to be accomplished, following a directing, coaching, supporting or delegating style in different situations. Although distinct, there is alignment with Alan’s conversations on ‘What can you do about that?’ (coaching) and ‘Who should really own this?’ (delegation), and the running catchphrase of the company’s micromanaging CEO: ‘What you need to do is...’
Back to the Conversations
Now, shifting back to the conversations Alan sets out in his book, the rest of this article considers four of them in more detail, leaving delegation and career path for future articles:
The discussion which follows is largely intended to be a summary of the structure of each conversation, with some explanation. I strongly encourage you to read the book for the details, including the story which makes it all come to life. If you’ve used these conversation structures with your team, please do let us know in the comments whether you found them helpful, and what the effects on your team’s performance were.
Make a judgement on which conversation is going to get the best result for both of you, and then use the appropriate structure to keep that conversation on track”
The coaching conversation is aimed at willing people who need some guidance, perhaps because they’re all over the place, or unsure of what to do next. Its goals are to: (i) raise their awareness (by encouraging them to think things through themselves), and (ii) get them to take responsibility (for setting their own goals and working out how to reach them). It achieves this by only asking questions i.e. not telling nor directing, nor offering advice/suggestions. It uses collaborative language and is non-judgemental, building commitment and bringing about change together.
The steps in a coaching conversation are:
1) Help the person identify what they want to achieve, given current circumstances and the broader context – if you don’t feel the goals are good ones, ask further questions about how achievable they will be and whether they will get them where you both need them to be, and keep going until the set of goals is good.
2) Help them work out where they are currently versus those goals i.e. their starting point, and a reality check of what they’re up against / potential constraints.
3) Help them identify some options of ways to achieve the goal or get started – it’s important for them to generate multiple possibilities of how to get from here to there.
4) Get them to compare and choose the best approach from (3), and ensure they tell you: what they are actually going to do, what their first action will be, when they will do it, and when and how they’ll report back – all the responsibility will be with them, empowering them.
Taking Responsibility Conversation
In this conversation, you should aim to keep it positive, so that you can resolve an issue without demotivating the person. Particularly avoid blaming – as you explore what went wrong, aim to find out just enough to prevent the same situation recurring. This needs a sensitive approach else the person may feel personally attacked and retreat or become angry.
Think of it like adjusting a piece of machinery. The machine was producing what you wanted. Now it has produced something that is not right. You need to go to the control panel, see what has changed or gone out of adjustment and modify the settings accordingly. Blaming the machine won’t get you very far.”
The steps in an accountability conversation:
1) Where are we now? Ask what they think the situation is. Get to the facts of the matter, including how people feel about it. Perhaps use phrases like “What’s going on?” and “Tell me more” to understand the situation.
2) How did we get here? The aim is to stop the same thing happening again – avoid blaming.
3) What can we do about this? Now that you both know where things stand, you can do something about them. Here is where you help them understand what you need from them and how you want them to work. Follow a collaborative problem-solving approach as ideally you want the person to come up with solutions so they can own them and do what they say they will.
4) Who’s doing what, and by when? Be absolutely clear what the deliverable is, and (i) summarise out loud what both parties have agreed to, or (ii) you summarise what you are going to do, and they explicitly tell you exactly what they’re committing to.
Alan emphasises that it’s important that your team should have help when they need it, but equally important that you as the manager should not end up solving their problems for them. In the story, the manager expresses it like this: “[Accountability] doesn’t mean I am going to leave you in the lurch… I will work with you to help you find ways to solve any problems you have, and you will then go off and take the necessary actions. We can agree what you are going to do, and how far you can go, every time, so you can be sure what you’ve got my authority for and what you haven’t.”
The third conversation in the book is aimed at addressing poor behaviours or performance. Managers can see these as ‘difficult conversations’ because they anticipate the individual will resist the message, take offence or become upset or angry. Or, they may feel they are letting someone down, or that they will be challenged, or resented afterwards. To handle these personal feelings, managers should try to frame the conversation more positively in their minds before attempting it. For example, seeing it as a developmental conversation, or one where you’re helping them save their job rather than it being their last chance.
While ‘difficult’ conversations can cover behaviour or performance, breaking the news that a delivery deadline will be missed, or telling someone their role is redundant, the example structure below is based on a situation where you need the person to stop or start doing something, or do it differently:
1) Say what the problem is. Tell them unequivocally what you are there to talk about.
2) Calmly say why it is a problem, perhaps due to the impact on others (which they may not realise) or that it is contrary to the organisation’s values e.g. “It’s not acceptable behaviour. It’s not helpful to the business and it’s not respectful to other members of the team.” Ensure that you can provide evidence if needed.
3) Say what you expect, in terms of performance, behaviour, attitude etc, which sets the standard as pleasantly as possible e.g. behaving in accordance with the company values and putting in a reasonable amount of well-directed effort.
4) Ask for their perspective on the situation.
5) Ask for their solution(s), what they think they can do to stop or start it or do it differently.
6) If you can accept their solution, do. If not, say why not, propose a solution you can accept and ask for agreement to it. If there is no agreement, then you may need to be explicit about the consequences of not reaching a good agreement.
7) Summarise the solution stating very clearly what the rules are going forward, make sure it’s agreed, and also agree when you will both meet and review it.
The first part of the structure means that you take charge of the conversation, allowing you to be assertive about your needs. The next part indicates openness, asking for their perspective and solutions. You don’t have to accept their solution – if it’s totally unacceptable and you cannot come up with a better one between the two of you, then you may have to impose your own solution, but that’s the least effective approach. For example: “[As] it’s business,… I won’t have people who want to be difficult, or behave badly, jeopardise what everyone else is working towards.” Most people will suggest something which improves the situation.
Performance Appraisal Conversation
The final conversation in this article concentrates on reviewing performance. We’ve all been through many of these conversations! Technically, the role of the manager is to make an appraisal of how the employee has done against their objectives, get their agreement to that, and input the results into the HR system, so it can impact bonuses, pay reviews etc. With this comes a host of potential challenges and dangers: unmet expectations, broken promises, moving goalposts, and objectives made irrelevant or impossible by changes in direction or strategy… Within this context, the conversation steps below work best when there are regular engagements throughout the year on progress, rather than a long-overdue recap based on fuzzy objectives. It is important for you as the manager to take charge of the conversation at the beginning and not simply hand it over to the other person to start off by listing all their achievements and triumphs. Preparing in advance is also important, including thinking about what they should be achieving for the business, and what you really need and want from them going forward.
Before the meeting, have a brief chat with your employee to ask them to prepare. Suggest that as well as reviewing their objectives, they should reflect more broadly on areas in which they feel strong and those where some development might help. Plus areas that are opportunities and things that are frustrating to them. I’ve written previously about appraisals from the employee’s perspective including having a forward-looking mentality and keeping an open mind, and the value of advance preparation. You may wish to share that article with your employees.
Alan says that this conversation has a “very specific form, designed on sound psychological principles to avoid most of the traps and pitfalls that plague so many appraisal meetings”. The aim is to have a real, high-quality, conversation about how the person is doing. The steps in such a performance appraisal conversation are:
1) Begin positively by recognising a recent achievement (identifying something they’ve been doing well – or at least acceptably – and telling them what it is), and then say that you’d like to get their view on their performance and how they’ve done against their objectives.
2) Empathise: listen to understand what they truly think, feel and believe. Ask good open questions and listen without interruption and without making judgements (e.g. ‘Go on...’), hear them out and take good notes, summing up what you’ve heard when they’ve told you everything they want to. This approach makes them feel appreciated as you’ve shown you have a good understanding of what they’ve been working on, including the problems and challenges faced.
3) Encourage them to explore what they want to improve or develop. When you’ve truly listened and understood from their point of view, they’re more likely to shift (perhaps with a tiny nudge) to talking about things which have not gone so well / areas for improvement.
4) Offer commentary and ask them to consider your suggestions, adding in what you’d like them to do or change that they haven’t mentioned yet. Because you truly listened, showing that you’d understood their point of view, and asked for their thoughts and ideas before sharing your own, you should be talking to someone who is willing, even if you disagree or hold a different opinion.
5) Coach, using the coaching conversation discussed earlier, because a willing person can be coached. Help them identify new objectives, skills, capabilities or behavioural development, and options of approaches to take. The outcome here is to get clear actions, timelines and agreement.
6) Build their confidence in future success, that they can do everything they have agreed, that they are capable of performing well, and perhaps even of exceeding expectations (theirs and yours).
Once again, you should choose a comfortable place for an open conversation and enough time to have it so that you are not rushed. In my view, appraisals and career conversations are the most important discussions you will have with your team members, so ensure that you take them seriously. Appraisal conversations should be forward-looking, so that the focus after the meeting is on the future. For this reason, it should not end with praise for past actions. As Alan says, “For this conversation to be at its most powerful, it should end with a future-focus, not a look back into the past”.
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