Keeping Up With The Conversation

The older, grumpier, and less patient I get, the more I realize that keeping up with the conversation is probably the key skill for career success and executive development. I wonder why it’s taken me so long to realize this because, like the discovery of the non-existence of Santa Claus, once seen, it appears obvious. But it sure as heck wasn’t obvious to me during the last 20 years of my management career.

Let’s make this concrete. To assess whether someone keeps up, I increasingly ask myself one question: do I want to talk to person X about problem Y?

There are three primary reasons why I wouldn’t want to talk to person X about problem Y:

  • Person X doesn’t understand problem Y. It’s not interesting to talk to him/her* because all I do is educate him on the problem. It is not a stimulating two-way exchange of ideas.
  • Person X doesn’t say anything interesting about problem Y. Person X understands the problem, but doesn’t have anything new or interesting to say about solving it. Boring.

  • Person X doesn’t follow through. Person X says interesting things about problem Y, but never follows through on agreements made during the discussion. Big talker. Or, to use the Texas equivalent: big hat, no cattle.

I reflect on the now-immortal words of a Business Objects board member who I (and several other execs) watched argue with a United flight attendant many years ago on a flight from Paris: “I don’t want to talk to you any more.” At which point the pilot came out not in an escalation of authority, but more to provide an appropriate-level contact with whom to resume the conversation.

(This became a running joke as we subsequently imagined ourselves being fired in a similar dialog. “What went wrong with the marketing campaign?” “Well, we had some trouble with the mailing lists.” “The mailing lists?” “Yes, you know sometimes it’s hard to find good –” “I don’t want to talk to you any more.” “But, but, but …”)

I like the want part of the equation because it provides an emotional element in the decision process. Yes, I’m supposed to talk to person X about problem Y because it’s in his domain as defined by the current organization. Yes, I know that. But do I want to talk to him?

Wherever I find a supposed-to/want-to gap, there’s a potential need for an organization change.

It might be that person X is wrong for the company. Or it might be that person X is a bad fit with his role or certain parts of it. But when things are working well, I should not only want — but be eager — to talk to person X about problem Y.

Now I’m sure I’ve condemned myself to weeks of “Hi Dave, do you like talking to me about X” questioning from Mark Logic staff. But I think it’s probably worth it to have shared this reductionist nugget.

According to this theory, the secret to career success is then: getting your bosses to want to talk to you about the organization’s top problems. That means two things: you need to figure out the top problems and you need to figure out how to make them want to talk with you about them.


* Henceforth, take all him references as him/her and his references as his/her.

One response to “Keeping Up With The Conversation

  1. This insightful perspective informs a very difficult set of conversations I've been having lately! Thanks Dave.

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