Monday, August 24, 2015

Fierce Conversations


In my new role as Director of Citizen Science* at the Adler Planetarium, much of my time is spent in 'managing' - setting goals, determining how we'll reach those goals, pursuing grants, managing grants, mediating relationships within the group, across departments, and with external partners, etc. In seeking management advice that resonated with my personality and background, I had some difficulty until a friend recommended:
"Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work & in Life, One Conversation at a Time", by Susan Scott
I'll admit, as with most advice books, I skimmed through the fluff and much of the anecdotes. But each chapter has worthwhile specific advice and 'tasks' to test out new ideas. I was surprised by how empowered I felt by the advice that emphasized how I could take advantage of my strengths (being a good listener, asking questions rather than immediately providing answers, being diplomatic, bridging relationships, etc.) to be the most effective in my role. Somehow seeing it in print gave me permission to be myself and play on my strengths. The book also highlights that you don't need to know everything and have all the answers. In fact, it's beneficial to relationship building and empowering for team members to know you're authentically including their voice and insight in decision making. This probably seems obvious to you, but as a relatively junior person stepping into a management role, part of me felt that to prove myself worthy, I needed to immediately have all the answers and a crystal clear vision (or at least appear to). I can imagine I'm not alone in that feeling. 

In thinking about my reaction, I wonder whether management books tend to have gendered, career-stage reactions. Does the management style advice offered by this book typically resonate more with more junior women? Are there others in this genre that you'd recommend?


To illustrate the types of 'tasks' the book assigns its readers, one chapter focuses on how to prepare for a meeting with colleague(s) to address a difficult issue. The book outlines how to construct a ~60 second 'opening statement' that allows you to go straight to the heart of the issue and be clear in what you want out of the conversation. The following are the points the book recommends these first ~60 seconds should address:
  • Clearly and concisely name the issue
  • Select a specific example that illustrates the behavior or situation you want to change
  • Describe your emotions about the issue
  • Identify what's at stake / why is the issue significant / what is its impact?
  • Identify your contribution to the problem
  • Indicate your wish to resolve the issue 
  • Identify what result you want out of the conversation
  • Invite your colleague(s) to respond
The chapter emphasizes that your role is then to listen, really hear your colleague(s) concerns and ideas, ask questions, and facilitate consensus. 

The book also helped me reposition my view on the word 'confrontation', which I think is a word most people have a complicated relationship with. Susan Scott writes, "All confrontation is a search for the truth. Who owns the truth? Each of us owns a piece of it, and nobody owns all of it." And later, "A confrontation is a conversation. As with all fierce conversations, the four purposes of a confrontation are to:
  • Interrogate reality
  • Provoke learning
  • Tackle tough challenges
  • Enrich relationships"
And if you're wondering: no, I unfortunately don't receive a piece of the royalties for my recommendation of this book and, yes, I wish the author had used any word other than 'fierce'

If you've come across books or articles that have resonated with you on this topic, please post here. Or if there are people whose managerial style you really admire/appreciate, definitely let me know. I'd love to do a follow up interview with them. Thanks!


*In case you were curious what it means to be Director of Citizen Science at the Adler Planetarium, I work with a wonderful group of educators and software developers, alongside Chris Lintott and his team in Oxford and in partnership with Lucy Fortson and her UMN team, to run Zooniverse.org. We also lead all teen programming for the Adler. I'm head over heels in love with my job!