Category: Conversational Skills

Q&A with Chris Taylor of

Chris Taylor spends his days working to change the world of work – one conversation at a time – through his company’s flagship program, Actionable Conversations, as well as the book summaries and thought leader interviews at
Founded by Chris is 2008, started off as a passion project and has since turned into something much bigger. On his site, you will find access to over 1000 summaries of business books in bite-size format, all for free. Each summary consists of a brief overview of the book, one key message, and two ways you can easily integrate that message into your life in five minutes or less.
Below are Chris’s thoughts on the importance of building relationships in the workplace, getting the most value out of a book, and his takeaways from spending an entire year reading a book a week.
Paul: You are a big advocate of relationships, especially at work, and say they are the #1 engagement factor. What are some best practices that you’ve learned over the years?
Chris: When we consider the fact that we spend more waking time with our colleagues than we do with our spouse on most given days, it’s wild to think how little time we spend proactively cultivating relationships at work. Beyond the transactional “I need this, you need that” interactions, one of the simplest things we can do to improve relationships is to engage in what my business partner refers to as “middle talk” – something that lives between the “small talk” about weekend activities and discussing the weather and the “big talk” about life purpose, deep desires, etc. Middle talk, then, is about the work we do, the impact we’re having (both with external stakeholders and our immediate working groups). Structuring in as little as one hour of “middle talk” conversation per month can help a team feel more connected and better heard, understood, and appreciated by their peers. This, in turn, drives employee engagement.
Paul: What is the best way to get people to value conversation and make it a priority?
Chris: Like most good habits (exercise, diet, sleep, etc.) the true value is experienced, not told. We recommend that clients make the first three conversations mandatory, with a conversation from the outset that engaging in these conversations will be a personal choice… after each person clearly understands the value (or lack thereof) that comes from the regular interaction. Frame it from the outset – we’re going to have three conversations over the next three months as a group… then we can decide (individually and as a group) if there’s value in continuing to have them. From what we’re seeing right now, 92 percent of teams decide to continue the conversations after those first three. The value of conversation is a fundamentally human need… we just need to be reminded of that sometimes.
Paul: In 2008, you decided to read one personal development book a week for an entire year. What were some unexpected outcomes of this project?
Chris: There were a couple major advantages for me in that project. First and foremost, I was amazed by how many other people gravitated to the idea. Not the idea of “reading” a book a week, per se (lots of people have done that or more), but in the act of applying one concept from each book to my life and/or business. We live in a time of information overload – there’s already, freely available, way more content than any one of us could consume in a lifetime. The value is not so much in knowledge collection so much as it is in knowledge application. Others saw value in the logic of consuming less but applying more and chose to engage in the conversation, which led to the business that is now
The second outcome from the project was a natural connection to a world of thought leaders and passionate content experts. As I finished each book I would write the author, thanking them for their work and sharing a link to the Actionable Summary I had created with my key takeaway from their book. No ask. Just a connection and stated appreciation. As a result, I was fortunate enough to forge some great connections, many of which have expanded into deeper relationships and friendships today. Thinkers like Seth Godin, Dan Pink, Susan Cain, Sir Ken Robinson, Simon Sinek and more were gracious enough to invite me into their homes and professional circles. Those connections have heavily influenced my life and business practices.
Paul: One big takeaway I’ve read was that “ideas are only valuable when applied.” What made you come to this conclusion? And are Actionable Books reviews a product of this belief?
Chris: When I started the “book/week” project in 2008, I was a year off the heels of a failed business venture that had sent me down a pretty dark path. Over the course of 2007 I consumed business and personal development books at a voracious pace – three or four a week… but nothing was changing. I was learning a lot, but my life was the same as it had been at the beginning of the year. I realized (around September) that while reading might be fun/interesting/distracting (pick an adjective), unto itself it didn’t create value. It was only through the act of applying what I’d learned that I could make any difference in my life. So, on the dawn of 2008, I decided to change my strategy – (a) slow down the reading pace, (b) identify the key concept from each book that I wanted to practice, (c) build a clear test activity that I could repeat daily for the week, and (d) communicate the plan with a group of individuals who could hold me accountable to the exercise. Then I was able to proactively reinvent the way I interacted with the world.
Paul: What has been your favorite book to review?
Chris: Tough call. I’m a big believer that the right book at the right time for the right person has the power to unlock untold latent potential. So I’d be hesitant to recommend or comment on one specific book for the content’s sake. That said, I remember reading Steve Farber’s Greater Than Yourself shortly after meeting Steve at his home in San Diego. Live texting with him while I was reading the book was pretty memorable. It added a whole new dimension to the book.
Paul: Can you give us some advice on the best way to get value out of a book?
Chris: Don’t get caught up in trying to suck all the value from the book. A well-researched, well-written book will have 15+ gems that you could apply. But you won’t. Not all of them, at least. Better to focus on the one thing that you want to apply from the book. Write it down. Commit to a time frame and a new habit. Try it out and reflect. One idea applied well is infinitely more impactful than a lot of “maybe someday I’ll use that.”

Q&A with Dr. Wanda Wallace of Leadership Forum, Inc.

Dr. Wanda Wallace and I have a lot in common – we’re both authors, we both devote our time to helping organizations succeed, and, perhaps most importantly, we both care deeply about establishing and maintaining productive relationships.
Dr. Wallace does this as President and CEO of Leadership Forum, Inc., where her focus is to enable leaders to deliver better results through better leadership, better teams and better diversity.
If you like what you read in this week’s Q&A installment, please check out her book – Reaching the Top – and also her VoiceAmerica show called Out of the Comfort Zone. In fact, an interview with me can be found here.
Paul: Wanda, I know that you’ve worked with individuals and groups from around the world. What three to five things should American coaches and managers know about working with colleagues from other countries?
Wanda: The first thing Americans should do is get a clock. There is nothing worse than having someone schedule a call or initiate a late-night call without any idea what time it is for you. Second, turn down the volume and get comfortable with more silence. People in other parts of the world often need a bit of time to think. They don’t believe talking over someone is acceptable. And they need time to process a different language. Give a bit of space before you jump in. Third, ask for others’ opinions – particularly if they are on a call and have not spoken. Fourth, gentle curiosity goes a long way. Just being interested in customs, holidays, routines, weather, or hobbies helps build connections. Fifth, connecting with people is not different anywhere around the world. The how may vary, but the act of connecting is the secret sauce of work.
Paul: I know that one of your areas of expertise is diversity. What does it take to create an inclusive culture?
Wanda: Companies talk a lot about diversity and inclusion. But what they’re really doing is diversity. Diversity is more of a counting exercise in that we take action to increase the number of people in diverse categories. There is nothing wrong with those efforts. However, the real prize comes from having an inclusive culture. By that I mean a culture where individuals who are not part of the dominant coalition feel included, feel they belong as much as anyone else, feel they can bring their unique perspective to bear on any issue, feel their voice matters as much as anyone else’s and feel they have as many opportunities as anyone else. An inclusive culture occurs because of how managers and team members treat each other every day. It’s both the subtle things way beyond unconscious bias and the processes around performance and talent. It’s how you make that joke about weekend plans, who gets invited to lunch, what explanations are given when there is a subgroup going off for a golf weekend, how policies like flex time are applied in reality, who gets picked for new opportunities as well as where, who and how you ask for opinions on what to do.
We know that diverse teams bring greater results, but that only happens if the diverse team members feel comfortable being open with their perspective. That only occurs when there is an inclusive culture on the team.
Paul: Why do you think women are not advancing to senior roles after decades of focus on diversity? Is it the same with other minority groups?
Wanda: There is no single simple answer. It’s complex, and until we understand the complexity, we won’t make progress on this issue at all. I believe the following combination of factors result in women not being adequately prepared for senior roles, and as a result aren’t being seen as credible to the organization.

Too little time in the core part of the business – the largest clients, the biggest revenue production area, the heart of how the company makes money. Without adequate time in central roles, she isn’t credible to sit at the senior table.
Too much time in expertise roles where her work speaks for itself, she is in control of her area, she gains confidence because she knows all the details. In expertise roles, she doesn’t develop the confidence to make a decision without all the facts, to trust her team to deliver, to show confidence without having done the details herself.
Too little feedback, particularly on style. It’s tough to give anyone feedback, and it’s far tougher to give feedback to someone who isn’t like you. Yet without the feedback and the coaching to address issues, careers stall. This isn’t about turning women into men or adopting a male style. Rather, it’s about learning how to navigate disagreement, how to negotiate and persuade, and how to deal with politics, to name a few core capabilities.
Not enough visibility. She has to create some of this for herself, and her manager has to help create it as well.
Trying to go it alone. As you rise in the organization, there are fewer and fewer people you can talk candidly with. Imagine trying to navigate any large organization without allies. Yet most women operate relatively alone because finding the handful of female colleagues is next to impossible and forging trusting relationships with male colleagues isn’t as easy for women as it is for men.

Paul: You mention that women are still not getting the feedback they need to be successful. Would you share your thinking with us on this?
Wanda: Very few people get good feedback – male or female. Add difference to that and the candidness of the feedback diminishes substantially. Say you wanted to give a direct report feedback that his/her approach was undermining trust. The better you understand the direct report (e.g., thinking, preferences, style, emotions, etc.), the more confidence you will have in your ability to deliver a message in a way the direct report can hear and the greater the chances that you will deliver that message. Now with the same scenario, image that you don’t know the employee very well – you seem to speak different languages, have different experiences, get emotional about different things. In that case, most managers side-step the feedback message. They don’t deliver it at all or they make it so subtle it’s missed all together.
Paul: What do you feel new college graduates need to learn about working in the organizational world?
Wanda: Here’s my bucket list for new employees:

Work on your communication every day. The single biggest complaint I hear from managers is about communication – being concise, knowing what information will matter to the listener and what isn’t so relevant, conveying the message with presence and gravitas. As good as you are in communication, you can get better. The more you do this, the better your career will go.
Develop your emotional intelligence. Being able to understand what others feel, how they might react, what emotions are likely to be at play in a situation is the heart of being persuasive. Learn to tune in to the emotions that are present in every situation. Learn to read the room.
Patience. Your career is a long-term effort. I hope you don’t achieve your ideal role in one to two years because if you do, you didn’t aim very high and you are going to be bored for the next 40 years. Don’t rush. When you think you have mastered the technical part of the role, turn your attention to the emotional/relational aspects of the role.
Manage your own career. It’s what you hear from everyone, and it’s true. That said, you need to learn the rules of the road when it comes to managing your career. What does that actually mean you should be doing at different stages of your career? What seems to work in your organization and what doesn’t? What are the typical patterns? So not only do you have to manage your career, you have to figure out for yourself what that means.

Paul: What else strikes you about the current generation entering the workforce?
Wanda: The willingness to ask who knows something, to put requests about anything out for crowd sourcing and to tap the extended network for information, advice and help. Information for this generation has always been readily available and easily searchable. They have a completely different perspective on knowledge. I find that fascinating. It leads to a whole different set of behaviors.
I also find their view of ownership to be unique. The younger generation is much more comfortable with collective ownership than I recall other generations being. By collective ownership I mean all the business models for co-owning, buying a share of, renting, and leasing. Think about cars and the more recent models of buying into a club that provides you a car when you need it.
Finally, I find there is a lot I take for granted that everyone already understands. I am often wrong with the younger generation – what they know and what they don’t know is a continual surprise. So the lesson from my experience is not to assume you know what the younger generation needs to know.
Paul: What is the biggest challenge you see for leaders in leading effectively?
Wanda: Managing all that is expected of them. There is a lot on every leader’s plate and not enough time to take stock, reflect and make adjustments. Setting priorities is harder and harder to do, particularly in a matrixed organization when things change all the time. There is enormous pressure on time. Leaders are out of capacity. Learning to manage in this environment is really challenging.
Second, there is no one way to lead effectively – I believe it’s about balancing one way as opposed to another. For example, as a leader you sometimes have to push people hard, but if you do that too much, there is a problem. Equally, sometimes as a leader you need to do the polar opposite – not push, let people do what they want to do. If you do that too often, it becomes a problem. So it’s a matter of balance, and how can you hope to get balance without space to think occasionally?
Paul: What is the difference between leading as an expert vs. non-expert and why does it matter?
Wanda: As an expert, you know more than the those around you and your credibility comes from your knowledge of the facts, the practices and the potential problems. As a non-expert, neither of those is true. Your team knows more than you do, leaving you feeling vulnerable. And your credibility comes from personality and style instead of your knowledge – from your ability to inspire others, your ability to communicate persuasively, the quality of the relationships you have, how much people like you and trust you, your ability to understand many different styles.
Paul: I know you are a fan of lifelong learning. What are you currently working to learn or practicing to master?
Wanda: There is always a long list. At the moment there are three things I am learning:

Using social media to get out a message to a larger audience. I am experimenting, making progress – but I am far from having mastered the best format for me and my work.
Inclusive culture. I think it’s an incredibly important concept and many agree with me. But I am regularly surprised at how little we can articulate the behaviors that define an inclusive culture. That’s true for scholars, consultants and professionals.
Emotions and their impact on individuals. This is not a new topic to me. Each year I strive to get better at how I help people understand the emotions they are experiencing and use those emotions to guide growth. It will be a lifelong journey – probably one I will never master.


Q&A with Len Friedman: Healthcare Leaders Are Relationship Managers

Len Friedman is Director of the Master of Health Services Administration program and a Professor in the Department of Health Services Management and Leadership at George Washington University. He is an expert on the mechanisms of organizational change and strategic decision-making in health service organizations – and that’s exactly why I’m delighted to feature him in our latest installment of the Q&A Series.
Below, we’ll get some insight into his thoughts on why conversation and listening are so important in the healthcare setting, what makes healthcare management students tick, and why he’s chosen Meetings Matter as required reading this semester.
Paul: Thank you for taking a few minutes to speak with us about your students. Len, first tell us about the source of your passion for helping your students flourish in the Public Health sector.
Len: Thanks for this opportunity Paul. I have been involved in healthcare in one form or another since the summer of 1967. Having tried (and failed) to gain admission to medical school, I have wanted to try and make a difference to make healthcare better. For the past 24 years, that goal has been achieved through the efforts of my students who graduate and move into leadership roles in a whole variety of health sector organizations. I try to share my passion for organizational excellence with my students in the hope that they take that with them into the workplace.
Paul: What do you feel your students need to understand and practice to be successful?
Len: First and foremost, healthcare management students need to understand that this is a relationship-based business. While there is a significant investment made in buildings, technology and infrastructure, when all is said and done, successful healthcare leaders know that human relationships are at the heart of everything that happens in our organizations.
There is no question that graduates need to understand the functional areas of management including finance, policy, reimbursement, IT, economics, strategy, law, etc., but the differentiating competency for our students is relationship management. How do healthcare leaders grow and nurture relationships with all the various stakeholder groups including physicians, staff, patients, community members, regulators, payers, employer groups and others? We need to give our students the opportunity while in school to learn about best practices in this area and to build their own skill in relationship management. The core of relationship management lies in effective communication with the ability to effectively listen to others.
Paul: I know you are a big proponent of listening skills. Please tell us about the value of listening and what students/professionals need to learn.
Len: Listening perhaps the single most important competency any healthcare leader can possess. Earlier, I mentioned the plethora of stakeholders that make up the healthcare environment. Every one of those persons wants to know that their thoughts and concerns are being heard in an open and genuine manner. It is remarkable how much healthcare leaders can learn when they slow down and open themselves up to listen carefully to what others are telling them. I have found that unhappy patients, physicians or others just want someone to really hear what they have to say. Like any skill that needs to be developed, students and practitioners need to practice listening to others. Effective listening in healthcare includes not interrupting, ignoring distractions and displaying a genuine interest in what the other person is saying. Stated another way, this is listening with a purpose.
Paul: If you had to choose three to five ideas that seem to resonate most with today’s students, what would you choose?
Len: To provide a bit of context, I find healthcare management students extraordinarily passionate about wanting to make a positive difference in this field. They understand that in the healthcare delivery sector – including hospitals, clinics, long term care, etc. – that with the possible exception of moms coming in for the birth of their babies, few if anyone wants the services that are provided by our organizations and are with us only because of a clinical problem that must be addressed. Given this reality, I think the top five ideas that resonate with students today are:

The only thing constant in healthcare is change – students must be prepared to be agents of change even when this is uncomfortable.
EQ (Emotional intelligence) is more important than IQ – there are a lot of really smart people in healthcare, but that does not always translate to empathy, listening and care for others.
Alignment of values – every organization has a stated and practiced set of values that drive the way in which they operate. Highly aware students know and understand their personal values and seek out organizations whose values that are in alignment with their own.
The Healthcare Flywheel – this term was coined by Quint Studer and speaks to what is required for highly effective healthcare organizations and leaders. At the center of the flywheel is purpose, worthwhile work and making a difference. Surrounding the center is passion, specific activities to assure consistent results, and data-driven evidence to support organizational effectiveness.
Real learning starts after graduation – the practice of healthcare management must take place in real time in organizations where the real work is done. It is great to learn the theories of management, participate in case studies and write scholarly papers. This is a necessary but not sufficient condition. It is only when the formal education is put into practice that real learning occurs. Students must be prepared to fail – and then learn from those failures.

Paul: What are your students looking for or most concerned about these days?
Len: The concerns of our students are a function of where they are in their career progression. Choosing healthcare management is an important commitment that is not made without a great deal of thought and reflection. For students early in the process, their primary concern is what part of the health sector is the best fit for them. Obtaining the first job in the field is always a stress-inducing time. Once they are employed, there are two simultaneous concerns. The first is work-life blend. Forty-hour work weeks are an infrequent luxury. How do you deal with the demands of work, family and friends all the while reserving time for yourself? The second concern is career progression and continuing professional education. Earning a BS or MHA degree is only the start of a healthcare leader’s education. While another formal degree is probably not needed (particularly for those who hold an MHA or equivalent), continuing education as a condition for career advancement is absolutely essential.
Paul: I’m pleased that you’ve chosen Meetings Matter as a text for you class. Thank you. Would you share your thinking behind this decision?
Len: My decision for choosing Meetings Matter is simple. The book captures much of what was discussed here. The thoughts, ideas and recommendations are essential for every healthcare leader regardless of where they are in their careers. While the title of the book is accurate in terms of holding worthwhile meetings, there is so much more. The book speaks to the value of human relationships and learning to have effective conversations. We rarely if ever teach students how to have effective conversations, and Meetings Matter elegantly meets this need.

Conversations and Cooking: Both Benefit from a Recipe

Sometimes, when you’re cooking, you don’t need a recipe. It’s either a simple dish or you’ve made that particular recipe so many times that you can whip it up simply from memory or experience.
Then there are other times when you’re working on a new or complex dish. You still have the same skill set and yet your odds of success go way up if you have a proven recipe to follow – something to go along step by step.
I would argue that conversations follow that same path, that the art of conversation and the art of cooking aren’t that different from one another. Most conversations will come naturally but others can be more complex or difficult. Many reasons account for this, especially in a business setting, including: size of group, emotional reactions to the topic or the intricate elements, angles, or questions the topic encompasses. But if you have a recipe—an underlying guide to follow—success is much more certain.
Gaining alignment on a project or initiative where people have different preferences, ideas, or concerns is one such example. The following design—or recipe, if you like—allows you to engage everyone in the conversation while revealing and addressing whatever questions or concerns might come up.
Leaders or groups are likely to seek alignment when defining goals, making decisions, or formulating strategic plans. When it’s important to have everyone in the group on board with the outcome, these are the steps to follow to reach alignment:

Describe what you would like to do and how you intend to do it. Be clear about your intended outcomes and the path you will use to produce those outcomes.
Find out what people are thinking. Start with an open-ended question that allows them to express anything and everything and gives them a chance to direct where the conversation goes. Stay with this conversation as long as they continue to ask questions or offer input.
Clarity is often a missing piece, and you want to ask about it directly. Asking whether people are clear gives them permission to say that, for whatever reason, they can’t get behind what you are asking.
Ask if people see the value in this. People might understand what you are proposing, but if they don’t see the value in doing it, they probably won’t align.
Ask people if they have concerns. People might like your idea, but supporting it might raise a conflict for them. If they can identify their concern, you can determine whether you can address it.
Once you know what is in the way, ask whether anything is missing that would make a difference to alignment if it were included.

Once you have the items identified in steps 5 and 6, ask the group whether, if you promise to address their concerns and requests, they are now able to align with the decision or plan.

Meetings, at the core, are a series of conversations. Work through each topic by having a thoughtful dialogue and follow a specific set of steps rather than jumping all over the place. If you can accomplish this, you can expect better outcomes and shorter meetings.
This post originally appeared on Leadership Forum Inc.

Sharing Information at the Office — Are You Doing It Right?

When it comes to sharing information with colleagues or employees, American psychologist, Carol Gilligan, puts it best: “I’ve found that if I say what I’m really thinking and feeling, people are more likely to say what they really think and feel. The conversation becomes a real conversation.”
Truly, these real conversations can only happen in environments where an organization or company values openness, transparency, inclusion and alignment. It comes down to the fact that people – on every level – want to be included and they want to be informed.
From an organizational perspective, it is important to continually give people permission to “clear” – the chance to ask about anything. Without this freedom, they will be left listening to rumors or simply left in the dark. What’s worse, given a void in information, people will make something up to fill it. This can cause all sorts of havoc.
That said, consider these practices when it comes to sharing information. They can overcome cultural habits that discourage questions and complaints, or layers of management that obscure the view for most employees.

Ask your managers to put an agreement in place with their staff to encourage more questions. This is what I recommend as an agreement: If you are curious, wondering, anxious or concerned about anything, please ask. I promise to tell you the truth.
Share what you know. Don’t make people ask the perfect question to get access to all of the information you possess. Constantly think from the perspective: What else would they like to know but haven’t asked about?
Start meetings with a clear request for participation. Make it a standard practice to remind people that you would like them share their views, questions, and concerns on each topic. I often phrase it in this way: Sometimes, it might sound as if I don’t want questions, or we might be getting behind on our agenda, but please don’t let this stop you from asking for the clarity and understanding you need.
Build more time into your meetings. If people feel like the meeting is going to run late, they tend not to ask all of their questions. Reduce the number of topics on your agenda and add 15 minutes to ensure clarity and understanding. Slowing down in the short term will pay off in the long term as you create a culture where people realize that you do want to know what they think.
Consider those not present. Ask the people who are present if they can think of anyone who would like to know about what happened in the meeting. At the end of the meeting, ask for volunteers to communicate with people who couldn’t be at the meeting.
Add extra time on global calls. When you can’t see people physically or if English is their second language, allowing plenty of time for people to speak is vital. Double the amount of time you put into your agenda to ensure people will ask questions so they can reach understanding.
During times of change, share more information and be available for questions. In order to deal with change, people need clarity, not certainty. Most managers make the mistake of waiting for certainty before being in communication with their people – too late. Talk to your people before you know how it is all going to turn out. You can always tell them what you know right now, the process that is being followed, and when you will know more. That clarity will go a long way towards reducing the angst in the organization.
One thing to watch out for. Avoid long answers and lengthy explanations. Don’t add detail that isn’t necessary. This is about being available and then answering every question until your staff doesn’t have any more questions. And it’s always good to practice focused speaking—which means your speaking is clear, concise, and relevant.