Tough conversations can propel leaders

Before Suzi Kalsow, Ph.D.,  joined Spirit Lake, Iowa-based Bank Midwest as vice president of learning and development, she worked in higher education as a graduate professor of leadership. When a university colleague started to bad-mouth a program she led, Kalsow confronted him using the communication principles she’d honed as a FIERCE facilitator.

Kalsow, who led a BankBeat webinar on FIERCE, recounted how that former university peer, also a professor, had responded to her directness. First he denied. Then he lobbed a pejorative. The example was instructive, she said, because she felt lighter after the conversation, even though she had just been called a name. The lesson? “It isn’t about them,” Kalsow said.

Kalsow said some of her former students told her FIERCE principles were the most useful thing they learned while at university. Yet FIERCE principles are completely applicable to the business world. “What gets talked about in an organization and how it gets talked about (and where) will determine what will and won’t happen,” she said. “Do people tell the truth in conversations?”

“FIERCE Conversations” is a book by Susan Scott, a former educator turned executive coach. The success of the book led to the development of a host of professional development programs designed to foster accountability, courage and compassion in the workplace. Kalsow, who facilitated “Learn to Lead by Navigating Critical Conversations,” said she was hired by Bank Midwest five years ago to integrate the FIERCE principles into the bank’s culture. In her webinar, she provided an overview of the principles, and the tools, that allow a person strategies to achieve them. Why the focus on conversations? “It’s how we build our relationships,” she said.

  1. Master the courage to interrogate reality. Think of the current political structure and how it has broken down relationships, Kalsow said. People no longer talk to each other because they question others’ reality. “You need to question your own,” she said.
  2. Come out from behind yourself, into the conversation, and make it real. The key here is authenticity, Kalsow said. “Sometimes you put on a face and be someone you aren’t. We say, ‘be who you are no matter where you are.’ What makes it fierce is its courageous. It’s not mean.”
  3. Be here, prepared to be nowhere else. Kalsow said at the first meeting she attended at Bank Midwest, there were roughly 40 people in the room all distracted by technology. Today the bank has ground rules that dictate no checking phones during meetings. “Think of the people in your life at work or at home,” Kalsow said. “What if you were the person who gave your family their full attention?” She advised bankers to stop looking at their screens when a person walks into their office and give them your full attention. “If you want to be a leader, this will distinguish you.”
  4. Tackle your toughest challenge today. The problem named is the problem solved. Identify and confront the obstacles in your path and do it right away, she said.
  5. Obey your instincts. If you feel something that hits you wrong, check it out, she advised. “Don’t talk yourself out of your own instincts.”
  6. Take responsibility for your emotional wake. Sometimes we say things that have an impact we didn’t intend. For instance, once Kalsow offered a coworker help on a project, but the person perceived the offer as micromanaging. “Consider intent versus impact and own your impact,” she said.
  7. Let silence do the heavy lifting. Americans aren’t good at being quiet, Kalsow said. When a peer comes to  you with a problem, “ask good questions and be there but be quiet.”

FIERCE conversations also led to the development of important leadership skills, such as how to delegate, how to coach, and how to communicate and coordinate across departments to ensure other perspectives and needs are met.

Perhaps the most critical benefit of FIERCE, though, is its ability to help a person navigate confrontation with defined steps, such as naming the issue, offering an example, describing emotions, and sharing what’s at stake.

These are conversations people either don’t know how to have or are afraid to have, Kalsow said.

Like confronting a professor who spreads misinformation about you. The professor who Kalsow confronted using FIERCE was effectively neutralized. When word got out around campus about how Kalsow had accomplished her feat, she was offered a promotion.