New science of team building: conversation

Nov 13th, 2014 | By FCT

The are two ways to focus the talents and energies of a network of talented, free people who comprise a financial services company in a single direction. One is ‘management,’ about which entire libraries have been written—the best of which is Peter Drucker’s, ‘Management’ gets you there. The other is ‘leadership,’ the charismatic, the inspiration, perhaps even the conscience of the organization. Leadership is the pinnacle, runs the received truth, of business acumen.


It’s impossible to be an effective leader without profound management skills. There’s no better way to measure a financial services company’s success than outcomes. But the catchword in the first paragraph is (or should be) obvious: it’s the word ‘free’.

The essence of great management is the shaping of a directed kind of freedom—not unlike a great teacher’s skills but with a clear eye on outcomes—that increasingly is problematic in managing high-performing talent, for whom freedom to move and act is paramount. Power in financial services companies springs from how and why a manager transmits information to make that information productive. Power stems from communication. And communication (see additional resources) is all about conversation.

That’s one side of the coin. The other is the tsunami of data we’re all inundated with. Less of we ‘manage’ human beings; more and more we ‘manage’ flows of information—and the consequent responsibilities are how we create value and against which we measure, against the expectations of the institutions where we work. Here’s the root problem: it takes judgement—real live human insight—to measure the value of a person’s contribution, qualitatively and quantitatively.

‘Expectations’ are outcomes, in infancy. And here’s the big difference: discerning which expectations are to be measured qualitatively and which quantitatively—and which a hybrid of both—is the challenge. And that not least because those very managers charged with producing those outcomes not only have to manage specialists but also not one knowledge-set but many ‘knowledges,’ as Drucker himself said. All this demands serious conversational skills, to discern out the real value a team-member brings to the problem-set.

Bottom line? A tremendous premium on how well managers learn to converse well: the great ones aren’t charismatics—they’re thought leaders who can win results, all the while balancing the conflict (the essence of a productive conversation) between needs and rights. In financial services, post-2008, with increased regulation, the dance of power is decidedly even more nuanced, not least because organizations are flattening at speed. Having the people who work for and with you understand what has to happen next is a critical kind of freedom. In a word: conversation.

That freedom lives and dies—the heart of job satisfaction and meaningful work, never mind the profit/loss statement—by how well we communicate. Conversation isn’t the means of the organization: it’s a mode, a process, a coordinating layer—the soul of great management.

Additional Resources

Research published in the Harvard Business Review <> found that groups which communicate frequently, broadly, multilaterally (i.e., no one dominates), and in multiple contexts, are also the most productive, independent of what’s being said or who the people are. (It’s kind of like the importance of the family dinner for simple cohesion, alignment and working out the domestic kinks: the corporate equivalent of ‘who’s doing the dishes tonight?’)

In addition, the numbers don’t lie: the teambuilding data compellingly predict which team will subsequently deliver “hard-dollar” productivity gains or successfully solves a group IQ problem.

Not having quick, inclusive conversations has scary consequences: teams that fail to include every group member, have asymmetrical interactions, or rely on email rather than face-to-face interactions underperform their peers. Takeaway?  Financial services companies should reconsider the true cost/benefit tradeoff of purely digital media such as email and texting; informal, face-to-face conversations measurably enhance bottom-line performance.

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