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Be a Better Leader with Discovery Conversations

Be a Better Leader with Discovery Conversations

By: Jason Jennings, author of The High-Speed Company: Creating Urgency and Growth in a Nanosecond Culture (Portfolio/Penguin, 2015)

My boyhood best pal Kenny Foster and I used to spend countless hours in an empty upstairs room in his house on Newberry Avenue, building almost-large-as‑life cardboard mock-ups of the boat we were going to use to explore the world and discover new things.

I bet you and your friends did something similar (there’s a bit of the explorer in all of us). The most satisfying explorations you’ll ever conduct are what I refer to as “discovery meetings.”

Here you’ll get to hear and learn people’s stories and in the process learn how to lead them to the achievement of their goals and ambitions. (Please note that I’d never actually use the phrase “discovery meeting” with someone I was about to meet, and I wouldn’t advise you to use the phrase either. Rather, it’s the frame of mind you’re putting yourself into before the interaction.)

In addition to taking what you’ve already read to heart, consider the following suggestions that tap discovery to better communicate in your company.

Check Yourself
The discovery conversation isn’t a rote flight checklist you’re making your way through. If someone isn’t genuinely interested in learning about another person — and doesn’t want to have the conversation for the right reasons — his or her lack of sincerity and authenticity will be immediately telegraphed.

This is a tough one for leaders; you may not like the person or may be so stressed that you don’t have the interest or energy to really connect. But beware: People have really good BS meters.

Don’t try to fake sincerity. If you can’t bring your head and your heart to the discovery conversation, you’re better off postponing or getting someone to help.

Timing and Setting Is Everything
Don’t try to have a discovery conversation in an office or cube without privacy. Open doors, constant interruptions, devices ringing and pinging, and people poking in for a quick response to a question isn’t conducive to the flow you’re trying to achieve.

Comfortable, neutral seating is vitally important. If the boss is sitting behind his desk and the worker is in a guest chair in front of the desk, communication will be staged and stifled. I suggest getting out of the workplace altogether whenever possible.

Be Vulnerable
Because complete honesty and authenticity are so rare, a display of both is generally disarming. Most people will at least temporarily suspend any sense of disbelief when you approach them with the following:

“Carol, I think I’d be able to be a better leader and help you get to where you want to go if I knew a little more about you and learned where you want to go and want you want to achieve in life. Can we spend some time talking about you?”

In this case the two parties have both just made themselves a little vulnerable, the boss by saying she’d like to be a better leader and the employee by agreeing to the conversation.

Remember, It’s Not About You
As you’re asking questions, curb the urge to talk about you. At a minimum the conversation should be 90 percent the other person and 10 percent or less you. Remind yourself, I can talk about me another time. Today’s my chance to learn about someone else.

Silences Are Golden
Be prepared to encounter and deal with natural pauses in the discovery conversation. The moment there’s a pause, most people have a tendency to jump in and keep things moving.

Early in my career a radio and television news producer told me, “Once you’ve asked a question and the person you’re interviewing has answered the question, don’t say another word. Let there be a pause and almost always the next words spoken by the person you’re interviewing will be the best material.”

“And Then . . .”
Some of my best daylong interviews with CEOs and company owners have required asking only three questions:

  • Tell me the story of the company through your eyes
  • Tell me your story
  • What’s keeping you awake at night these days about your business?

The only other words I’ve had to use to keep the conversation going were “And then . . . ,” “What happened next?” “Aha, that’s fascinating,” and “What’s likely to happen if you do or don’t do that?”

Repeat What You’ve Heard
When you hear something that’s potentially important, use a small gesture to pause the conversation and say, “I want to make certain I understood what you just said. Did I hear correctly that ____?” When you repeat information, you’ll stand a better job of remembering it.

No Notes, Please
I still remember everything I’ve ever heard during all of my discovery meetings — and there have been many thousands of them. If you are genuinely interested, listen intently, and hang on to the edge of your seat waiting for the next part of the story, you don’t need any notes and you’ll remember everything you hear for the rest of your life.

This isn’t an interview . . . but that’s what it will turn out to be if the other person sees you taking notes.

Be a Dream Catcher
Leaders shouldn’t be afraid to use the word “dream” in their conversations. Everyone, no matter how superficially cynical he or she may be, has dreams. The only question is whether the person you’re listening to trusts you enough to share them.

Ask questions like:

  • What would your dream job look like?
  • Where do you dream about ending up in your career?
  • What would a dream assignment be?

These are great ways to get people to reveal themselves.

Tie Their Goals to Yours
When people share their dreams and what they want to accomplish in their careers with their leader or manager, they provide her with everything she needs to know to be able to communicate downward with them more effectively.

Excerpted from The High-Speed Company: Creating Urgency and Growth in a Nanosecond Culture (Portfolio/Penguin, 2015) by Jason Jennings by arrangement with Portfolio, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright (c) Jason Jennings, 2015.

Author Bio:
Jason Jennings
is the  bestselling author of THE REINVENTORS; It’s Not the Big That Eat the Small — It’s the Fast That Eat the Slow; Less Is More; Think Big, Act Small; and Hit the Ground Running. USA Today named him one of the three most in-demand business speakers in the world.

Read more insights from author Jason Jennings:

How to Hire Engaged Workers and Lifelong Learners

How Extraordinary Companies Pursue Radical Continuous Change