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The 7 Conversations of a Leader

Training leaders are in the business of changing people’s minds. And while training professionals might know how to “train” leadership, they often struggle with the subtleties themselves. Case in point: When it comes to negotiating with their higher-ups for buy-in and commitment, many training execs choose to avoid the conversation entirely. And there are many other critical talks that never happen.
There are seven key types of conversations that every leader needs to have with stakeholders. And, there are ways to increase the satisfaction of both parties involved.

1. Coaching Others
In every conversation, you are either building or breaking down trust. In other words, people are either more motivated or less motivated after talking to you.
That’s certainly the case when it comes to coaching. Effective coaches spend the majority of the time listening and a fraction of the time talking. And most of that talking time is spent asking questions. Why ask questions? Because people rarely believe in anything that doesn’t come from their own self-discovery. Some good coaching questions to ask:

• What do you want to achieve?
• What is the first step you can take to reach that goal? The next step?
• What obstacles are preventing you from taking those steps?

2. Delegating Responsibility
One of the best tips about delegation comes from author David Allen (Getting Things Done: the Art of Stress-Free Productivity). Before he delegates a task or responsibility, he asks himself, what do I need from this person to completely “let go” of the project? Is it an update once a week? Is it a casual conversation once a month about how the project is going? You, too, should be able to identify what you need so you can let go.
To help build leadership on your team, delegate projects that are outside the group’s comfort zone. For a new trainer, this might mean facilitating a workshop for new hires. Or, for a trainer with limited clinical knowledge, the challenge might be to work with a vendor to build a new disease state course.
Delegating not only helps you clear your desk—it’s critical to help your team grow.

3. Motivating Others
Author and researcher Marcus Buckingham says there are certain parts of our jobs that invigorate us and certain parts that deplete us. I don’t think any of us would argue with that. While much of our job is inflexible—meaning certain tasks that we don’t like still need to be done—there is room to move the needle on the “parts I love” vs. “parts I loath” ratio-meter.
To be an effective motivator, have regular conversations with your direct reports and ask:

• What do you love most about your job?
• What frustrates you the most about your work?

Help them identify ways to limit their frustrations, when possible. You’re not just reducing water cooler gripes. You’re being a good leader. Employees will set higher goals when they know their manager is doing everything possible to help them succeed.

4. Confronting Poor Performance
While many conversations start with questions and listening, conversations that address performance issues need to be direct and straightforward. Keep it neutral by focusing on facts. You can be very specific about your observations but should stop short of drawing conclusions about attitudes, motivations and intentions.
Susan Scott gives an example of how to start this conversation in her excellent book, Fierce Conversations.
When she needs to confront an employee about poor performance, she starts by saying, “I would like to talk to you about the effect X is having on Y.” For example, “I would like to talk to you about the effect of your missed deadlines on the rest of the team.” It’s neutral, specific and direct.
Every leader needs to know how to handle this type of conversation. Rather than playing “the heavy,” the goal is to motivate employees to maximize their potential and equip them with an action plan to accomplish it. Or think of it this way: We insult people when we don’t confront them with the reality of their performance. It suggests that we don’t believe they can handle honest feedback.

5. Problem-Solving and Decision-Making
Sometimes, we don’t even realize all of the options we have. Take, for example, the training director who is trying to decide whether to send her department to a conference. She might be concerned about the time away from the office, as well as the investment. When she considers her options, she might only think she has two: sending the team or not sending the team.
But in fact, she has many more choices. For example, she could send only her top performers. Or she could just send the new trainers in the group. Or she might send part of the group this year and the rest the following year. She could send them for a day, two days, or the entire meeting. Or she might just go herself.
Sometimes, the best way to solve a problem or make a decision is to step back and ask yourself: Have I identified all of the options? The same goes for your team: Has your department identified all of the possibilities? By doing so, the best solution often becomes clear—which can lead to more effective conversations about important issues.

6. Selling Ideas
All leaders have to obtain buy-in and commitment to action. Whether the word “sales” is in their title or not, they have to sell their ideas to other people all the time.
One technique to do this is to quantify the value monetarily. Many people are unsuccessful at selling their ideas because they try to sell value instead of going the extra mile to specifically quantify that value. They will say things like, “it will save time” or “save money” or “increase quality” without measuring that value and putting a dollar figure on it.
That’s not always easy in pharma training. Demonstrating return-on-investment is one of the biggest struggles in learning and development circles. First, you need to benchmark where you are. For training, this might mean your sales force’s skills or behaviors. Once you deliver the training, you need to collect the right data so you can reassess your benchmarks.
If you’re working with a vendor, ask them to quantify the investment. You may save yourself some time by allowing them to do at least part of the legwork.

7. Negotiation
So what happens when you and your head of training don’t see eye-to-eye about your budget? Or your department’s headcount? Or maybe you want to try a new vendor and the rest of your team wants to use the same company, despite lackluster results? Then it’s time to negotiate.
The key to an effective negotiation is to identify the interests behind people’s positions and then meet as many of those interests as possible. How would this work as a training leader? First, you need to explore the reasoning behind the other party’s position. What are their main concerns? Money? Reputation? Ambition? If you can address the other side’s interests, you don’t necessarily need to accept their position.

Why Conversations Fail
Why don’t leaders have the conversations they should have? Why aren’t they as effective as they could be? The reason has less to do with knowledge and more to do with emotional intelligence. To be an effective leader, you need to identify and assess emotions in others as well as yourself. With this ability, you’ll have more effective discussions at every level.
The bottom line: Get in there and have the tough conversations even if you don’t know exactly what to say. You’ll never have complete information or perfect clarity, but great leaders move forward in the face of ambiguity. So start the conversation!

Colin Maiorano leads Strategy Worx, a training and consulting firm based in Michigan. Email Colin at cmaiorano@

How to Have Better Conversations with Stakeholders

Having successful conversations with sales, marketing and other training stakeholders can be daunting, even for a seasoned training executive. For improved conversations with your peers and higher-ups:

• Start by assessing where you stand. Ask yourself: Are you avoiding conversations that you need to have? What is preventing you from opening up the dialogue?
• Be timely. Don’t let important conversations sit too long on the back burner.
• Be solution-focused and positive, rather than negative. Don’t merely identify problems without offering a game plan to solve them. SO, instead of saying, “The training program won’t be effective if we don’t get another trainer,” say, “For the program to be effective, it’s important we have another trainer.”
• Don’t assume the other side can understand your point of view. Most of us have a tough time doing this.
• When dealing with a performance problem, focus on the issue, not the person.
• Find an ally. Your immediate supervisor is a great start. Together, you can present ideas or concerns as a team.
• Be open to compromise. Most effective solutions require give-and-take on both sides.
• After a key conversation, thank the other party for their time.
• Keep good notes of your discussions so you can move forward on plans you agreed on.

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