The business-enabling conversation many executives avoid


Missing the clues

I work as a business advisor to executives, and in doing so also I often also have 1-1 conversations with their direct reports.

I can’t count how many times, though I am having confidential conversations with each of them, I am left thinking, “Do you two ever talk to each other?”

They are often in violent agreement about how they feel, about what needs to be done, and about what role each of them should play in doing it. But to talk to either of them you’d think that they lived on different planets.

The executive will say, “This leader just isn’t getting it, I need him to show that he is more…[fill in the blank]”, and the leader will say, “I’m so frustrated because I want to be more… [fill in the same blank], but the executive [doesn’t do or understand something].

Please just talk to each other.

“Make it so”

Executives seem to want to say, “Here’s the situation, I need you to do this.”

Their expectation is that the manger will say, “OK, will do”. And come back with a programmatic response about getting it done.

While that sounds kind of OK, it avoids any real conversation about it. And many executives seem to prefer it that way. But this lack of real conversation leaves a big gap in the organizations’s ability to perform.

I have tried to understand why so many executives seem to avoid unstructured conversations with the people on their teams.

They often dismiss it as a waste of time. Or some executives think that they are above this type of communication.

But what I believe is really going on is that they feel like unstructured conversation will be uncomfortable.

I haven’t really figured out all the reasons for the avoidance, but I can tell you for sure, that it’s the avoiding of real conversations that invites risk in the business.

Yes, it can become uncomfortable

The reason it is uncomfortable is because instead of the sterile, “I want a plan”, “Here is a my plan” type of communication, you open yourself to a conversation that can be messy: It’s personal, creative, and maybe emotional.

But don’t you want to engage your leaders on a creative, personal, and emotional level? Won’t they be more effective?

When these conversations are not happening, performance suffers.

Motivation also suffers — but performance actually suffers. Teams get stuck because the underlying belief system which needs to support whatever the organization is trying to do is not in alignment — because you haven’t actually talked about it!

“What do you really think?”

When I had my first major executive role, with people very much my senior reporting to me, I was always concerned that they would not feel OK about reporting to me.

After a short time, I realized that not only were they comfortable reporting to me, they were quite happy about it. I kept doubting and second guessing myself thinking, “how can it be that these very experienced people enjoy reporting to ME?”

What I now realize is that a huge part of the answer is that I would regularly ask them in an unstructured way, “What do you think?”

Know for sure

As an executive, you really need to have a high level of confidence that you and your team have aligned your belief systems about what you need to do.

As an executive depending on a team to execute, how could you not want to know what people really think?

You need to make sure you align on:

1. Why are we doing this?
2. Do we really agree about what is important?
3. Do we share a belief system that supports the success of this mission? (for example: a growing market exists, a competitor will stumble, a supplier will remain available)

If you as the executive are only broadcasting what needs to be done, and your team is saying “OK”, you are assuming that you agree on the answers to these three questions, but you will never know for sure.

Start the conversation

It can be as simple as, this question: “Here’s what I’m thinking and why? What do you really think?”

Once you have rolled out your new strategy or intentions, before you ask your team to create plans and budgets, it’s a really good idea to have a conversation with each person and ask, “what do you think?”.

It’s also really important to have the same unstructured discussion with your team. “Let’s talk about what we all think about this.”

Sure it might get messy. But you need to allow that and work through it. Your only other choice is people starting down the course of implementing the strategy with a lot of personal doubts, low motivation, or actual disagreements.

By avoiding messy conversation what you have actually done is traded a false sense of order and harmony in the short term, for a slow moving catastrophe where people are not effectively set up to succeed at the new thing in the long term.

I can tell you from the many executives and teams that I work with, when we allow these types of conversations to happen and THEN build a specific plan to put the new strategy into action, it has a much higher success rate.

Because people only become personally bought in and engaged, when you give them the opportunity to engage on a personal level — through real conversation.

What do you think?

Join the conversation about this on my facebook page.

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About Patty
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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)

You can find Patty at, follow her on twitter or facebook.

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