Category Archives: Strategic Conversations

How to overcome low levels of employee trust toward senior leaders

Gary, I found it interesting that many staff struggled at first to tell me what they really thought. They would say, ‘You’re not going to like what I have to say so I’m not sure if I should say it’. Each time they said this to me I told them that I needed to hear what they had to say. They would then tell me that they weren’t sure they had the right words to use. So I told them to use whatever words they had and that if, at the end of them speaking I didn’t understand what they had just said, I would ask questions. Slowly, they started to tell me what they thought. And today I heard things that were different from what my senior management colleagues are telling me. So I have some work to do. And it’s good work!“.

These words came from the most senior Australian Executive for a European based company for whom I recently facilitated an OTM Strategic Conversation®. The conversation was about success.

Comments such as the ones above are common. Think about it. How often do senior leaders have strategic conversations with staff who are three, four, five or more levels away from them? Virtually never. If these folk ever do have a conversation it is over a cup of coffee after the senior leader has just provided a one way update to a large group of staff. Such conversations are unfocused and polite – most people don’t say what they really think because the context doesn’t encourage it. You’re the boss and you have power over me. If I tell what I really think I risk bad things happening to me. So it is best to keep quiet.

Truth to Power is a concept identified by Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman and Jim O’Toole in their book ‘Transparency‘. Organisational values such as Openness, Integrity and Service Excellence are supported by having a high level of Truth to Power. In its simplest form, Truth to Power means that the right information gets to the right person at the right time for the right reason. The challenge, according to the research conducted by Bennis, Goleman and O’Toole is that the vast majority of workers do not trust senior leaders, so they keep their information to themselves.

Part of the reason for low trust stems from the power differentials between people lower in an organisational hierarchy and people higher in an organisational hierarchy. It is natural for people to be wary of people who exert power over them. After all, these people can make decisions that can make their lives more difficult.

This creates a dilemma for organisational leaders. The reality is, most staff don’t trust them even if they don’t know them. Their title, role and power generate the distrust. Yet the leaders would see themselves as trustworthy. You’ve heard the saying, trust must be gained – it isn’t just given.

One way to gain that trust is to have regular, focused conversations with employees. Leaders need to engage in Conversations That Matter® with their people. Not just their direct reports and other senior leaders. They need to engage in strategic conversations with everyone.

But leaders are busy. Exceptionally busy. How can they engage in regular strategic conversations when there are so many people to speak with?

Once again, their is a solution to this dilemma. OTM Strategic Conversations® enable large groups of people to have focused conversations on issues that matter to them. Instead of a random and polite conversation over a coffee after a speech provided by a senior leader, imagine sitting down with three or four people talking about the challenges that the organisation is facing in creating the success it desires. Success, by the way, that was just defined by the large group of employees present. Imagine if this same conversation was being repeated at 10, 20, 30 other tables at the same time. Imagine the energy in the room. Imagine this whole process being completed within three to four hours.

Imagine, as a senior leader the genuine rapport that you could build with people multiple levels away from you. Imagine the trust that you could build. What if participating in OTM Strategic Conversations® became a regular and strategic tool for your organisation?

Bennis, Goleman and O’Toole identify that organisations that are high in Truth to Power are also high performing organisations. This means that there is a bottom line benefit for raising the level of Truth to Power in your organisation. Strategic conversations enhance performance. Strategic conversations enhance trust. Strategic conversations enhance Truth to Power.

The internal business intelligence that my client above discovered through his first experience of an OTM Strategic Conversation was priceless. He told me himself. His organisation has customer and staff morale problems that he hadn’t fully appreciated largely because he had been receiving a consistent senior management perspective on the issues. In other words, he had only been hearing part of the story.

How do you maintain Truth to Power in your organisation?

Gary Ryan is the Founder of Organisations That Matter and has been hosting OTM Strategic Conversations since the year 2000.

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
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Three Steps For Bringing Organisational Values To Life

I recently published an article titled “Company Values Need to Be Talked About” and I was asked to provide a follow up to that article. So here it is!

Organisational values are too often left to gather dust on office walls. If you are a leader and your organisation has values, how regularly do you bring those values alive in conversations with your team members? The usual response is, “Not very often.” Yet when we ask leaders if they believe in their organisation’s values they reply with a resounding, “Yes!”.

So what is the problem? Why is it that so many leaders struggle to host conversations with their team members about their organisation’s values?

The answer often lies in two issues. Firstly leaders simply forget to take responsibility for keeping their organisational values alive by talking about them with their team members. Such behaviour is simply not on their radar.

Secondly, many leaders aren’t taught how to tell effective stories. It is assumed that leaders know how to tell stories. In part this is true. People DO know how to tell stories. However, telling effective stories is different. Telling effective stories requires some structure.

Thankfully most storytelling structures are quite simple. Here’s one that most of you will remember from your childhood. The structure was effective then, and it is still effective now.

Step 1 – Start the story.
This usually involves setting the scene and context of the story. For stories regarding the organisations values you would explain a situation and set the scene that you are going to explain how the organisation’s values can be used in real situations.

Step 2 – Explain the middle section of the story
This usually involves the details about what happened and who did what. It is where the rationale behind how the values were used would be explained.

Step 3 – Finish the story
This section provide the “So what!” part of the story. What was the result? In this case, what was the impact of using the organisation’s values to guide decision making and actions.

These three steps effectively catalyse Conversations That Matter®.

An example

When I was on the executive team of a medium sized business some legislation was passed that affected $14million of our revenue. In 12 months time it would be gone. This revenue directly paid the salaries of over 200 people.

Having already performed some scenario planning on this outcome, the executive team met to confirm what would be done for the staff to ensure that the values of integrity, teamwork, service and community were upheld throughout a difficult period. A decision was made to use the organisation’s training and development budget to up skill the staff in resume writing, interview skills and outplacement programs to ensure that as many staff as possible could find new jobs.

All staff who wished to access the support were provided with the training and outplacement support that they required. While it was a difficult period for everyone involved staff consistently reported that while they wished that the situation had not occurred, they were delighted with the support that the organisation had provided them throughout their transition. The vast majority of staff found new jobs and opportunities that fitted with their career aspirations.

A significant benefit of storytelling is that it helps people to makes sense of situations. After you have told a story it is worth asking people if the story has triggered any similar examples that also might show the organisation’s values in use. When listening to their stories listen for the start, middle and end. Not everyone tells stories correctly so they might miss out some important parts of the story. If you are listening you can help them out. For example, if someone shares a story but leaves out the end, ask, “What happened? What difference did your actions make?”. You’ll be amazed at the difference asking such questions can make to the quality of your team members storytelling.

Using this technique can create highly engaged and flowing workplace conversations. Without even knowing it your team members will start to deepen their understanding of what your organisation’s values really mean in action. So, set aside 15 minutes once a month in your team meetings and see if you can bring your organisation’s values alive through storytelling. Follow the simple start, middle and end structure and you’ll be surprised just how effective it can be. Please leave a comment or let me know how you go using the three steps for organisational storytelling.

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
Visit Gary at

Five Steps For Connecting Strategy to Action

For many years I have been facilitating leadership development programs for graduate students who have a minimum of five years work experience. The focus of the program is to enhance the capacity of the participants (even if only in a small way) to successfully perform in a mid to senior leadership role. The participants in the programs come from a broad range of cultural and work experience back-grounds, which is one of the many reasons that I enjoy facilitating the program. As part of the program I ask the participants to generate questions, that if answered would help them to better perform their role as a mid to senior leader.

A recent question that I was asked was, “What is the most important thing that you have to do as a manager to keep your team focused on organisational objectives?”.

There are many factors that relate to answering this question. In this blog I will provide one approach that a leader can use to enhance the capacity of the team that they lead to stay focused on (and achieve) organisational objectives and goals.

Step 1.
Does your team know the organisational objectives to which it is contributing? This may seem like a silly question but my experience has taught me that it isn’t. Too many managers aren’t able to clearly and quickly articulate the organisational objectives to which the performance of their team is contributing. If you are in this situation then it is your responsibility to find out. The answer can usually be found in the organisation’s Strategic Plan or Annual Plan. These documents will exist but all too often their implementation seems remote from a mid-management perspective because a gap often exists between planning and operational activities.

Step 2.
Once you have identified the objectives outlined in your Strategic Plan, the next challenge for you is to communicate how that plan relates directly to your team members. A simple and effective tool, irrespective of the level of the people who report to you, is to use the One Page Strategy Map invented by Kaplan and Norton. An example of such a map can be found here.

Many organisations use the Balanced Scorecard methodology for their Strategic Planning and even if a different methodology is used, the high level strategies can often be focused and presented on a single page.

Step 3.
Literally sit down with each member of the team that you lead and, with a highlighter in hand, highlight each aspect of the Strategy Map to which their work directly relates. On many levels the act of highlighting different aspects of the content on the Strategy Map is far less important than the conversation that you will be having with each member of the team as you go through this process. These conversations will create a clear and specific level of understanding about what each person does and how that contributes to the achievement of organisational objectives.

Copyright Gary Ryan 2012

Step 4.
At the conclusion of your conversation ask your team member if they have identified any work that they are doing that doesn’t seem to fit anywhere on the map. The answer to this question will not automatically mean that they are doing something that they shouldn’t be doing, but it certainly should indicate that further inquiry into this work should be considered.

Step 5.
Ultimately any work performed by the members of the team that you lead should be able to be explained in the context of how it contributes to the strategies outlined in the Strategy Map. Any other activities may be a waste of time and may indicate a loss of focus from the real work that should be performed. If possible, conduct a whole team conversation to enable each team member to clearly and concisely articulate their contribution (and collectively your team’s contribution) to the achievement of organisational objectives.

If you follow the five steps above and regularly talk about the progress that your team is making toward the achievement of the objectives outlined on your organisation’s One Page Strategy Map you will have an enhanced capacity to help your team members maintain focus on the work that they should be doing.

What is your experience with using Strategy Maps or similar tools to enhance the focus of your team? Or, if this post has encouraged you to try this approach for the first time, please let me know how you go.

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
Visit Gary at

Primary school teacher develops conversation skills with children

One of the members of the OTM Academy has applied and modified the OTM Strategic Conversations® process to teach conversation skills to eight and nine year old children in his primary school class.

His humility is such that he has asked to remain anonymous, but for the sake of this article I’ll call him John.

Focusing on water conservation as his topic, the children were organised into groups of six. They were asked to be conscious about how much they were talking and listening.

The first question asked was, “What would be the perfect world to have for water?”

The children engaged in the conversation expressing ideas about how water could be managed. While they were conversing, John moved around the room listening to what they were saying. Part of the purpose of the conversation was to see how much they had learned from the previous few weeks of learning about water.

John, initially nervous about using this process with young children, was quickly convinced that the process worked as he heard the children talking with passion, focus and knowledge as they conversed on the first question.

As the process encourages, John mixed up the children in their groups for the second question, “What are the challenges of achieving this world?”

As John moved around the room again he was once again impressed by the way the children were sharing the conversation and demonstrating that they were listening. A Teacher’s Aid who witnessed the process remarked that she was amazed at how engaged some of the children were, particularly a number of them who had not previously shown much interest in contributing to classroom conversations.

Collecting the output from the second question John was amazed at the maturity and deep understanding of the topic that the children had clearly developed.

Rotating the children again to ensure that they learned to speak with different children, the third question focused on action. “What are we going to do?”

John was delighted that the children came up with a broad range of practical ideas, which included sharing them with the rest of the school community.

Delighted by the outcome of the conversation John contacted me to share his story. “I was very nervous at first wondering if this would be too much for the kids, but as you had encouraged me, I let myself trust the process. And it worked. I couldn’t believe that the 90 minutes we spent talking went so fast. And the kids were on centre stage, not me!”

Teaching people to hold conversations can occur at any age.
The OTM Strategic Conversations® process is based upon the original work by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs.
What are your experiences of conducting large group conversations or, as we like to say Conversations That Matter®?
The OTM Academy is a free Online Community created by Gary Ryan to enhance the Personal & Professional Development of members. More information on how to host a Strategic Conversation® is available in the academy. Otherwise, email for more information.
Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
Visit Gary at

Learn How A Strategic Conversation, Twitter And A Customer Summit Helped Telecom New Zealand

Strategic conversations are conversations that include anywhere from 12 to over 1,000 people. These conversations are designed to enable large groups of people to quickly ‘get on the same page’. This can include gaining clarity regarding a desired future, understanding the current situation in the context of the desired future, to then agreeing on the steps to be taken to move forward. New technology including twitter has suddenly and exponentially increased the power and possibilities for strategic conversations.

Recently Dr Andrew O’Brien from Organisations That Matter facilitated a strategic conversation that was hosted by the CEO of Telecom New Zealand as part of their Customer Summit process. Twitter was used to include people from ‘outside the room’ and proved to be an outstanding success. Our understanding is that this was a world first for this type of conversation.

If you are interested in finding out more about that specific conversation, check out this blog that was posted by a participant.

As a facilitator of strategic conversations is it exciting to see the possibilities that new technology is bringing to ‘face to face’ communication. The question for you to consider is, ‘when do you plan to host a strategic conversation?’.

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
Visit Gary at