Today's Reading


As CEO, Dee Hock instinctively knew that all the abstract notions of management—corporate culture, strategy formulation, organizational alignment, change management, living the brand, joint venturing, winning the customer, enabling innovation, recruiting top talent, creating atmospheres of aspiring versus fearing, improving connectivity, and scaling up excellence—were accomplished one conversation at a time, with teams, persons, and both small and large system meetings. Dee called "this abundance of interdependent diversity that was the deeper meaning." When I look back at our years of working together, what most stands out was how Dee, when at his best, was a maestro of vital conversations—some of the greatest I've ever been part of. Many of them became defining moments. This experience led me to believe this:

Every organization and every life's destiny is a series of defining moments—moments that shape us, change us, and have a huge impact on our development and strategic choices. Our research indicates that almost all of these moments involve the power of vital and caring conversations with significant others.

After numerous virtual conference calls and telepresence meetings with Dee (not his favorite way of conversing), I recall thinking: "I have never seen a CEO giving so much time and positive energy to each conversation, with such purity of attention, curiosity velocity, and mutual inquiry across boundaries; getting everyone engaged like a contact sport; inviting full voice; and modeling the beginner's mind with real listening. Everyone felt appreciated, honored, elevated, and heard."

In one instance, drawing on lessons from the Visa startup story, we were working with an organization to help its members articulate its body of beliefs, those constitution-like principles that provide the core values for years to come. My job was to apply the mindset of Appreciative Inquiry, an approach that values all voices, seeks to inspire generative theories and possibility thinking, opens our world to new possibilities, challenges assumptions of the status quo, and serves to inspire new options for better living.

Dee called for a conversational process in which a diverse group of all relevant and affected stakeholders would meet and deliberate for three full days, every forty-five days, for an entire year. This schedule provided the time for vital conversations to get at the essence of what matters. Looking back, in a world where relationships are often superficial, this process was astonishing. Because of those inspired conversations, the organization doubled in growth, doubled again, and continues to grow exponentially. So deeply held and valued were its guiding principles that, because of the power of conversations worth having, the organization had the courage to craft one final and concluding principle for the entire global system, with over 850 centers in some 150 countries. This principle stated, "Any individual or organization in this global system can do anything it wants, at any scale, and in any manner—as long as it advances our shared purpose and principles."

This was a radical principle. It asked everyone to be a leader—to build the culture via every conversation. In effect, it told the organization's people that they needed very little traditional supervision. It eliminated the need for a large, expensive, central office hierarchy and thick books on standard operating procedures. It realized that the intrinsic motivation that comes from inspirational beliefs is much more powerful than extrinsic forces. One lesson derived from that principle is highly relevant right now:

When you approach each vital conversation as if it could become the most important conversation you might ever have, you can create a positive legacy. How often do we think of our next conversation with this kind of alertness and high anticipation?

Originally, the prospect of deliberating for three full days, every forty-five days, for twelve months took everyone by surprise. Now, as I look back, I realize it was not the number of days that was important; it was the tough-love message Dee was sending. He was raising the bar on how we conceive of leadership work and think about conversations. In his book that shares the Visa creation story, the word 'conversation' is used ten times more than the term strategic planning. Conversation is a meeting of hearts and minds. I believe this:

When hearts and minds meet, they don't just exchange facts and create atmospheres of hope or despair: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new explorations of possibility. Such conversations are literally living systems, living on the edge of chaos and order—like all of life, when it is most alive, busting out all over with pattern and coherence but also alive with novelty and emergence.

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