Conference Conversationalist-in-Residence

Over the next few days, I will be a conference conversationalist-in-residence. The 3 day WELCOA Annual Summit starts today and I shall be there as a visible, roving listener, catalyst, coach, provocateur and connector. Attendees will be able to talk with me to make the most of their Summit learning experience. I’ll be inviting people to speak with me to:

  • Reflect more deeply about their summit experience.
  • Process and connect ideas.
  • Consider how they might turn inspiration into action.
  • Discover networks of support and accountability.

In this post “Good Conference / Bad Conference,” I wrote about enhancing the typical conference experience so that attendees achieve impactful learning and actionable insights. It is a common feature of the human condition that people wish to belong, have meaningful connection and be heard. People want to talk and to make sense of the world and their experience. These principles apply to the workplace, where we seek to learn, grow and develop ourselves.

I am looking forward to using the principles and practices of conversation to aid attendees in their quest for an enjoyable, productive and meaningful conference experience that resonates over next few days and beyond.

We can hear 1,276 square miles. So why don’t we hear employees?

“I’ve heard sounds 20 miles away. If you do the math, that is the size of 1,276 square miles. Do you know what it’s like to listen to 1,276 square miles when the sun is rising?” – Gordon Hempton, acoustic ecologist

Close your eyes. Close your mouth. Now try closing your ears. Our ears are always working, always awake. We are exquisitely designed to listen. Yet vast swathes of employees exist in organizational cultures that don’t hear them.

Any definition of a corporate culture of engagement will include a two-way relationship between employer and employee. Typical engagement surveys ask about open, honest communication and whether an employee’s opinions are heard. The data tell us we have failed. It tells us that we do not cultivate human workplaces. It tells us that one group talks and the other is silenced.

“There is no correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” – Susan Cain, author of Quiet

Stop talking and start listening. Build authentic engagement. Here’s my guide to help you on your way to listening actively and attentively to employees.

Good Conference / Bad Conference

Hello Conference Season! Good bye money and value… Most of you are going to waste a lot of money as the conference season gets into full swing. Why? Because too many conferences are still tied to a traditional model fit for the twentieth not the twenty-first century.

A bad conference provides data. A mediocre conference offers information. A good conference contains knowledge and, yes, an entertaining time. A great, but rare, conference yields wisdom and fulfillment.

To improve the quality of conference outcomes, just search the Internet for advice and you’ll find listicles of a type such as “10 Reasons Why Your Conference Sucks” or “Seven Signs of a Successful Conference,” which suggest attention to such details as available parking, wayfinding signs, good food, toilet breaks, greeters and so on. For some, the old model of conferences – great speakers, networks, like minded tribes, the parties – just need to be updated with more relevant curated content and a more sophisticated and entertaining overall experience. If that is all we do, then conferences are terminally destined for ignominious irrelevance.

The core objective of a conference should no longer be focused on the information or the speakers. It should be on what attendees can conjure with the information and with each other. The central outcome of conference planning should now be the meaningful connection between attendees. After all, being together in a large group is less necessary than it used to be and less common in an age of remote working and modern technology.

Here’s a design structure for a new type of conference experience

  • Deliver in advance the conference content and information. Why wait for the conference when you can already read the speaker’s book, watch the TED talk or peruse the essay? The conference planners should issue that material ahead of time and provoke thoughtful reflection to prepare people for the conference.
  • Hold attendees accountable. If you are spending $2,000 to $3,000 I think it is reasonable for other attendees and yourself to expect you go willing to learn and prepared for what follows.
  • Design a robust and flexible conference agenda framework of one-to-one and small group dialogue on issues arising from the conference content. These discussions can be facilitated by what would have been the formal speakers, as well as other facilitators, informal conversation catalyzers and the attendees themselves.
  • Within this dialogue framework, provide a content and conversation guide enabling attendees to draw insight from these conversations and apply it to their context and experience and to share that. Ensure attendees are co-creators of their own learning and contribute to the learning of others. The conference should create insight, creativity and problem solving, not pretend to hand it out to a passive audience.
  • Enable intersectionality in every way, where attendees encounter others in unexpected and unpredictable ways.
  • Of course, add in a hefty dose of social time and entertainment. I’m no party pooper!

If you are still planning which conferences to attend this year, instead of those you could skip by accessing the information elsewhere, look for those that offer the opportunity to direct your own learning, to co-create knowledge and the event experience with other attendees, and to enable you to develop insights applicable to your work and to your life. And, by all means, aim to have a fun time.

If we are going to come together at a conference then it has to be special. Too often it isn’t. But the possibilities are rich and enticing. Let’s capitalize on that.

Onboarding’s Spectacular Failure – Build a Conversational Culture Instead

It remains remarkable that businesses continue to fail at onboarding, and not just fail, but fail spectacularly. Studies indicate that half of all new senior outside hires fail within 18 months, half of all hourly workers leave new jobs within the first 120 days and that 90% of new hires decide within the first six months whether to stay or leave. Further, how many of those that remain are disengaged? The costs to corporate America are massive. To take one metric for example, some estimates suggest that the cost of one failed executive position can reach $2.7 million. These losses are avoidable.

Although remarkable, such failure is unsurprising when many organizations treat new hires as commodities to be assimilated into the organization through a series of steps, rote processes and systematic interventions, or through a sink-or-swim apathy. They miss the obvious: new hires are people that require a human-centric approach, not a mechanical, sterile protocol. These are cultures that are conversationally incompetent.

The SHRM (Society of Human Resources Management) Foundation’s Effective Practice Guideline Series includes Onboarding New Employees: Maximizing Successauthored by Talya N. Bauer, Ph.D. It describes onboarding as “the process of helping new hires adjust to social and performance aspects of their new jobs quickly and smoothly.” Onboarding comprises four distinct levels known as the Four C’s. Compliance (policies, rules, regulations) is the lowest level, followed by Clarification (role clarity), Culture (organizational norms) and Connection (interpersonal relationships and information networks). Essential features of a sustained, positive employee onboarding experience include social integration and knowledge of the culture.

To illustrate social integration, Bauer’s work features a case study of IBM’s onboarding program. One of the most valuable elements in IBM’s onboarding process was “the individual assigned as a new employee’s coach—a friend to answer questions, reinforce concepts, share processes and tools, and help transmit the intangible cultural values of the firm.” This begins to hint at the importance of personal relationships rich in the principles and practices of authentic conversation. However, the titling of IBM’s onboarding practice as the Assimilation Process also suggests a more typical onboarding emphasis on an inculcating methodology over a more complex approach matching the nuance of human experience.

One of the onboarding tools suggested is a conversation guide borrowed from the authors of Onboarding: How to get your new employees up to speed in half the time. The need for a conversation guide, though, points to a different corporate problem than presented by onboarding. It indicates an organizational culture where humans are not capable of having an authentic conversation. If you need a script to manage your “onboarding conversations,” you’re missing the point.

It isn’t that a coherent, diligent onboarding process is unnecessary and I certainly am not suggesting that the interpersonal elements of that process are inappropriate. Yet the continued inadequacy of many onboarding programs illustrates the larger challenge: Creating an organizational competence with the principles and practices of conversation. Developing and nurturing a conversationally competent organization is a long and arduous effort. It defies rigid protocols and how-to manuals, nor is it achieved simply through a new hire team lunch and a coffee meet n’ greet, which is why many organizations have little appetite for it. But if you want truly groundbreaking onboarding, authentic conversational practices and environments are indispensable. How does your organization go about establishing a truly conversational culture that folds a new hire within its embrace?

Books of 2016


In reflecting on what books I would select from this last year of reading, two features quickly emerged. The first is that I leant more heavily into the factual and creative non-fiction genres rather than fiction. Given that observation, I would welcome your suggestions for what fiction I should be reading in 2017. My second observation is that running through these selections is a thematic thread regarding the exploration of the human condition, our quest for meaning and the inquiry into the prosaic and profound experiences that inform our lives. In a tense election year, when a preference for our own individual “facts” outweighed acceptance of universal truths, these works and personal reflections have provided me respite, as well as a literary landscape that offered fresh perspectives on current and perennial issues both moral and matter-of-fact, principled and practical.

Unlike other “Best of” year lists, my 2016 selections are of books I have read during the year and not books necessarily written in that year.


All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

all_the_light_we_cannot_seeI loved the structure of the book, with its pithy short chapters alternating between the two main characters and time flashbacks. The prose was lovely and the story, revolving around the surprising connection between a young blind French girl and a German radio engineer during WWII, was hugely entertaining.


The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It… Every Time – Maria Konnikova

theconfidencegame_jkf_r3_a-199x300How easily we are duped, even the most cynical or assured among us. Konnikova’s examination of this game of deceit is insightful, rigorous, entertaining and uncomfortable. It reveals more about the human psyche than most of that genre to be found on the business or psychology shelves.

On the Map – Simon Garfield

on_the_mapMaps are not merely impartial signifiers of the physical world. They are excursions of the imagination, biased interpretations of their creators, arbitrators of what is true and false, and delineators of what we can and cannot discuss and consider. Garfield explores this wide terrain with wit and rigor.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost – Rebecca Solnit

a_field_guide_to_getting_lostHow do we live with uncertainty? How, on the one hand, do we cope with and how, on the other, do we relish the vagaries of our experience? What if we are lost, bereft? Solnit offers us multiple ways to consider these and other questions, including my favorite, what is the blue of distance?

The Thing Itself: The Search for Authenticity – Richard Todd

the_thing_itselfTodd assays into reflections on authenticity in four areas of life: things, places, others and himself. Against the backdrop of a popular culture navel-gazing for feeling real and discovering our true selves, Todd’s observations read with gentle, self-effacing insight and wry wisdom.

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails With Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others – Sarah Bakewell

at_the_existentialist_cafe_uk_coverWe give meaning to our own lives. How is it to feel, act and to behave? What is it to be free to determine our way in the world and to interpret our experiences? Bakewell’s book charts the collision, convergence and conflict among ideas and people.


H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

helen-macdonald-h-is-for-hawkThis was one of those few books that I read in 24 hours. Macdonald navigates the grief after her father’s death alongside a goshawk she trains, simultaneously juxtaposing emotional and physical pain and aesthetic and natural beauty. Encountering the visceral essence of life and the ambivalence of death, Macdonald slowly moves towards mending, carrying the scars of the journey with her.

Black Like Me – John Howard Griffin

black_like_meAlthough published in 1961, to our shame, this book continues to be relevant. It recounts white journalist John Howard Griffin’s travels around the American south in 1959 as an African-American, having his skin temporarily darkened to pass as a black man. It is a chilling account of bigotry, endurance, and cruelty, but not without some hope.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone – Olivia Laing

the_lonely_cityThis book is a wonderful excursion into questions of loneliness, connection and meaningful experience viewed through the lives and work of six acclaimed twentieth century artists and icons.

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates

between_the_world_and_meWhat is it to be black in today’s America, physically and philosophically? This potent meditation is an insightful commentary on the world around us and Coates’s intimate encounters with that world.

The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin

the_fire_next_timeAn iconic intellect writing a generation before Coates, Baldwin was an exquisitely eloquent, talented, observant and courageous writer and advocate for equality. Eulogized by Amiri Baraka as “God’s black revolutionary mouth,” Baldwin himself said, “The world is held together, really it is held together, by the love and the passion of a very few people.”

Black Elk Speaks – John G. Neihardt

black_elk_speaksWhether as an insight into a Native American culture, a dwindling way of life or as memoir, the book’s account of Black Elk’s spiritual visions is compelling, revealing and relevant.

The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend – Bob Drury and Tom Clavin

red_cloud_cover_0Red Cloud was the only American Indian in history to defeat the United States Army in a war. At his peak, the Sioux tribe could claim control of one-fifth of the contiguous United States. This biography recounts the bold, brutal and forbidding history of the region and these times. The gruesomely honest narrative is a compelling read that reveals a leader of immense capability against the backdrop of culture clashes, westward expansion, duplicity and heroism.