Craig Weber, of The Weber Consulting Group, is in the studio during this “National Advisory Showcase” segment to talk about his book Conversational Capacity and building effective teams in the workplace.
Please excuse any typos in this hasty transcript.
Matt Register: Welcome back to Texas Business Radio. I’m your host Matt Register. Jay Curry had to step out for a little bit. He’s going to have us join him, he’s going to join us again here in a minute. But in the meantime we are at a portion of the show we like to call the national advisor showcase. There are some really smart guys that come into Texas, talk to CEOs, help you figure out how to grow your business. We like to bring those guys in here, pick their brain a little bit. This is a guy we’ve had in here before. Craig Weber is the author of Conversational Capacity. We’re going to have a quick conversation about how you talk to your people, how to get the most out of your teams, and how do you ensure that you are not taking your most valuable resource that you’re paying a lot of money for, which is the brains of all your employees, and you’re not on accident shutting them down and keeping yourself from getting the most out of them. Craig, welcome back to the show.
Craig Weber: Genuine pleasure to be here Matt. Thanks for having me.
Matt Register: Conversational capacity, give us a reminder of what it is because you’re talking about making sure that you operate as a leader of your organization in a way that does not harm your ability to get horsepower out of your people.
Craig Weber: That’s well said, and that’s a harder thing to do than a lot of people appreciate. Conversational capacity you can define in a couple of ways. One would be the ability, and this can be an individual or a team of people, to have constructive learning focused dialogue about difficult subjects in challenging circumstances, and even across tough boundaries. You can see it in a team. High conversational capacity they can put their most difficult painful divisive issue on the table in a meeting and do really good work around it, whereas low conversational capacity a minor difference of opinion will screw things up. It’s sort of an underappreciated variable in really building organizations and teams that are working well, particularly in challenging circumstances, but not something we’re paying as much attention to as I think we should.
Matt Register: Well where this really manifests itself is when team members, employees, there’s a power differential there between the leader of the organization and them, and they’re scared to speak their mind, they’re scared to have controversial opinions, they’re scared, and scared may be even too strong of a word, but if they fear that they’re going to have negative impacts of a particular opinion they’re going to keep their mouths shut, and that’s not what you want at all.
Craig Weber: Exactly right. The way to describe it, there’s a place in a meeting called the sweet spot. The sweet spot’s where candor and curiosity are in balance. The sweet spot’s that place where you don’t just have a lot of smart people around the table, you’re able to get access to their smarts. Those are two different things. A lot of leaders focus, as Jim Collins would say, on getting the right people on the bus, which is important, but they don’t spend as much time making sure they’ve got an environment where they can get access to the smarts they’re paying for.
Matt Register: Yeah they’ve got to be engaged, otherwise the smarts don’t do you, silent smarts don’t do you any good at all right.
Craig Weber: Exactly right. If all the best ideas are coming up in the hallway after your meeting, you’re in big trouble.
Matt Register: Okay.
Craig Weber: The problem is that nothing lowers conversational capacity more predictably than the presence of authority. So your job as a leader is to make your team smarter. You walk in the door, it tends to get dumber because people become, as you said, more guarded, more fearful, more cautious around, I don’t want to say things that are going to offend the boss, I don’t want to make a career limiting move, I don’t want to trigger a defensive reaction that gets me in trouble. So very often a boss walks into a meeting and the conversational capacity of the room starts to drop. From a leadership perspective it’s really important to learn how to wield your authority in a way that increases rather than decreases the conversational capacity of your team, which is hard to do.
Matt Register: Well the answer isn’t necessarily leaders stay out of the room. Right?
Craig Weber: Exactly. Well then because your perspective is missing. You have a very unique view of the business and if you’re not in the room the decision’s dumber for it, but at the same time when you’re in the room you may push other people away from the table and the decision’s dumber for it. It’s a bit of a conundrum.
Matt Register: So how does that leader set a culture of conversation, set a culture that allows for dissent and disagreement and interesting opinions-
Craig Weber: That’s right.
Matt Register: So he can be in the room and not lower the level of conversational capacity?
Craig Weber: What you can’t do is sit back passively and hope your team will challenge you when your views are off base or when you’re missing some evidence. You need to invite them to do it. If you’re in a position of authority, you need to encourage them to do it. I’ve seen people that actually reward people who challenge them publicly. One of my favorite examples was an engineering leader in California, Silicon Valley, who said I’ve got a bunch of engineers but my meetings are really just me holding court. I’m not getting a lot of the smarts I’m paying for. I’ve got all this intellectual horsepower on my team and I’m not using it. So he actually said look, I’m not the easiest guy to work for, I’m a challenging guy, so here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to put an idea on the table, I’m going to explain it to you, and then I’m going to leave the room for 30 minutes. In 30 minutes when I come back I want at least three concerns up on a flip chart and we’re going to work them through together.
He would actually, kind of a best of both worlds, he’d step out of the room for a while so he’s not getting in the way of the dialogue. I thought the flip chart idea was brilliant because it’s more neutral territory. But then he would come back in and engage. He’d listen. He’d take notes. He’d put his two cents on the table.
Matt Register: That’s also the group with a disagreement, not an individual. I mean he’s lowered the risk a little bit.
Craig Weber: Exactly. There’s a group of people in there, there’s a flip chart so it’s more neutral. What was interesting is he said I began doing this and it was stunning the difference, how much more value I was getting out of my meetings because I wasn’t getting in the way of the dialogue I needed to get. He said I did this for several weeks and I was looking forward to my meetings like never before. Then he said something funny happened. He said one day I got up to leave my meeting, as I’d gotten in the habit of doing, and one of my engineers spoke out loud and said look we talked about this as a team, you can stay if you want, you don’t have to leave the room.
Matt Register: Oh interesting.
Craig Weber: So there’s the trust coming in. When they see that not only do you not get in trouble when you challenge the boss and you provide an alternative view, when you show him where his thinking may be off kilter a bit, not only are you not getting in trouble, I think he likes it, or she likes it. Suddenly the trust goes up, the defensiveness goes down, and suddenly they’re more willing to challenge you. There’s sort of a flywheel effect. I think as a leader we need to send consistent signals that we’re not only open to feedback, we’re hungry for it. We want it. We’re going to reward the people who will tell us to it like it is. Even if we have to leave the room sometimes to make sure we’re not getting in their way of doing that, that’s a strong signal. That’s something we may need to do.
Matt Register: But it does need to be a conscious decision. I mean it needs to be something that the leader pays attention to. I know one of the, I’m a very direct guy and I by default kind of assume everybody else is, and everybody else isn’t.
Craig Weber: Exactly.
Matt Register: Where I know I wouldn’t have a problem speaking up, other people may. That’s not necessarily what you want at all.
Craig Weber: Right.
Matt Register: It just needs to be a conscious decision and something. What are some of the creative techniques you’ve seen that guys do? Like the flip chart and stepping out of the room, I’m sure there are more right.
Craig Weber: That’s a big one. I have another client, a major international bank, and they see conversational capacity as a part of their risk management culture. What they will do is put a big idea on the table and describe it in detail to the team. Then the leader in charge of making the decision will say okay for the next 30 minutes our job as a team is to find every reason we should not do this. Let’s kill the idea. Let’s beat this thing six ways to Sunday. And they torture the idea, what are the risks, why would this be a stupid move, why would our competition laugh in our faces if we made this decision. It makes it a lot easier for someone to put a critical idea on the table when you’re supposed to be putting a critical idea on the table.
Matt Register: Sure.
Craig Weber: It almost makes me uncomfortable not putting a critical idea on the table because we’re supposed to be doing it. Once they’ve really spent some time torturing the idea, they’ll flip the coin. Why should we do this, what are the risks of not making this decision, why would our competitors laugh in our face. That’s another really smart strategy I’ve seen for reducing the barrier to negative critical input so you’re really looking at the issue in a more clear headed fashion.
Matt Register: Interesting. We’re talking to Craig Weber, Weber Consulting Group out of California. Conversational Capacity is the book. Conversationalcapacity.com is the website. You can get the book almost anywhere though right?
Craig Weber: That’s is correct. McGraw-Hill published the book, so it is available at Amazon.com in both print and electronic formats.
Matt Register: Now you’ve got another book coming out soon right?
Craig Weber: I do. I’ve got a manuscript due right after the first of the year to McGraw-Hill. This is going to be a book about how an individual can build their personal conversational capacity by doing meaningful work in their teams, organizations, or community. So if you’re going to practice this stuff, pick someplace that matters, someplace that will make a difference. Whether it’s in your team, whether it’s in the business, or even out in the community, how do you go out there and try to make a constructive difference and in the process get better at working in that sweet spot, candid and curious.
Matt Register: Now interesting. Well yeah because this stuff certainly applies outside of just business. It can apply to any of your other stuff outside of work life that you’re doing.
Craig Weber: Yeah, that’s what I like about this stuff is you can practice it in the workplace, but it’s going to have a bleed over effect. You’ll be less reactive, more emotionally astute, more on top of your behavior in situations that are outside the workplace. I’ve repeatedly had people say I built my conversational capacity by focusing on the business, but my family commented on the difference in me. I’m not as reactive. I’m a little more balanced. I don’t fly off the handle like I used to. I really like that.
Matt Register: Interesting. No, very interesting stuff. Now Weber Consulting Group is a company. Who is it you go in and consult with?
Craig Weber: Almost anything. I’m working with everything from a nonprofit organizations, working with the Child Poverty Collaborative in Cincinnati over the last few years, do a lot of work at the Boeing Company, but I work with a lot of mid level companies, management teams, executive teams.
Matt Register: Trying to help them squeeze more horsepower out of what would no doubt be a very expensive payroll right.
Craig Weber: Exactly. How do you make sure you don’t just have a lot of smart people around the table, but you can get access to their smarts when it matters. So the conversations are open, they’re forthright, they’re direct, they’re no nonsense, but they’re also candid, they’re curious, they’re humble. It’s how do you get people working together in the most effective way possible even when circumstances are conspiring against it.
Matt Register: Well interesting stuff and easier said than done. Conversationalcapacity.com is the website. We’re going to have that linked right from texasbusinessradio.com. By the way, that book is on our essential reading list there at texasbusinessradio.com if you’re driving and can’t take notes. Craig Weber, long time friend of the show, thank you very much for joining us again.
Craig Weber: My genuine pleasure. Thanks for having me back Matt.
Matt Register: Absolutely. We’ll be back right on the other side of the break with a whole lot more Texas Business Radio. We’ll be back.
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In addition to hosting "Texas Business Radio," Matt is an investment banker and serial entrepreneur from Montgomery, Texas. He is the owner of RREA Media and Register Real Estate Advisors and a Managing Director and Principal at Corporate Finance Associates. He has a BS from the United States Military Academy at West Point and an MBA from Rice University in Houston. You can read more about Matt HERE.