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The perennial problem of someone in my position with my title is the ability to move beyond the title and access a more fundamental level of communication. Often when I am in meetings with people, there is a subtle but significant power imbalance. The result of this is that the conversations that I’m privy to or the level of problem that lands on my table is limited–if I’m not deliberate, I only get to see the problems when they are already significant and costly.
I am on a constant mission to surface the issues before they need to be addressed by me. In my frustration with this dynamic, I stumbled on a very subtle but powerful tool–the Walk and Talk.
Essentially, I invite a person to go for a walk and I buy them a drink. This is typically a 20-minute investment and packs a mighty punch. It turns out this is a short journey that has an amazing impact–it breaks down any power imbalances, and we become two people on equal footing, developing a broader understanding of each other. We seldom talk about work unless there’s a really pressing issue, and rather get to know each other as people (as opposed to colleagues).
This works as well for remote teams, as long as there’s a conscious decision to not revert to work topics but to ‘shoot the breeze’ together for this defined period of time.
The results are really rewarding–since I stumbled across this tool, I have taken about half the company for a walk and talk. As a consequence, when I do meet up with the person again in a work situation, often when there are challenges on projects that I am helping resolve, there’s a level of trust and communication that was not previously there.
A recent example of where this bore fruit was when a project went off the rails and I needed to step in to assist the person course-correct. Because I’d been for an informal ‘walk and talk’ before this, I could start the conversation off on a lighter, more personal level. This reduced the level of tension, and we could start from a level of trust that I had made the effort to get to know her on a personal level, and thus she had the sense that I ‘had her back’ and my intention was support and resolution, not blame. It didn’t prevent a problem from happening (those always crop up if you’re doing difficult work). Still, it did enable a faster and more pleasant resolution and set this person up for better outcomes next time that issue surfaced.
What I have increasingly realized on this leadership journey is that the best tools I have at my disposal are the people I work with, and it’s my mission to unlock their skill set, commitment, and dedication to their particular role in our organization.