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A Curriculum for Conversational Leadership

With the rise in importance of Conversational Leadership as a way to empower employees, HR and L&D depts. are increasingly looking at implementing effective training programs to promote this approach to leadership. However, it is not an easy task unless you adopt a broader vision than merely adopting and teaching some all-seasons best-practices. Let’s see how to develop a structured curriculum that aims at real long-term training result delivery.
Andrea Laus
SkillGym CEO
11 min read

 

Conversational Leadership is gaining daily in popularity. And there is a good reason for that. Conversations are the energizing fuel of leadership, even if organizations sometimes discover this the hard way, when leaders underperform in their duties of motivating, leading and supporting employees through this important asset.
The old saying, “people don’t leave bad companies, they leave bad bosses” remains true.

 

The need to create more inclusive and more motivating organizations is one of the reasons why, clearly, we need more and better performing leaders. Also, we need to take into account the fact that our society as a whole is developing so fast that old patterns and old references get obsolete at a much higher pace.

It is very urgent to cope with this continuous change by developing a new generation of leaders.
New leaders who, at different levels of any organizational ladder, can provide support to a more inspired, stable and purpose-driven ensemble of employees. It’s not surprising then to see the rising interest in the potential that hides behind Conversational Leadership mastery.

 

However, in witnessing the growing development of Conversational Leadership literature, such as books, articles, webinars and the like, too many organizations are still facing the dilemma of how to integrate effective training to support development in a smart way.

In fact, most of the available literature covers the topics of Conversational Leadership and critical conversations in a very cognitive way, providing best practices to rapidly approach most tough situations, but fails to deliver an appropriate and comprehensive program to train the underlying skills required to master this area of leadership in the long term.

 

Developing leadership, and specifically on Conversational Leadership, requires more than a general vision of the subject and a list of best-practice tips to be applied as needed to some of the most common difficult situations.

Conversations involve behaviors that are highly dependent on habits. Simply knowing what to do, or even how to do it, does not provide enough foundation to act in a way to influence behaviors and, in the long run, to change old and underperforming habits.

 

If your goal is to establish a robust structure for Conversational Leadership empowerment, you can’t just rely on framing the issue of “critical conversations” as something you solve with some best-practices and deliver a few days of class to just let your trainees know how they should cope with it.

And you absolutely can’t leave them unsupported afterwards, when they need to find out how to turn such knowledge into habit-driven new behaviors and how to keep the balance between the different leadership situations they face every day.

 

Instead, you need to consider addressing the entire subject in a smarter and more structured way. To succeed, you need to implement a comprehensive training program based on actionable practice and nothing is better than Digital Role Play as a powerful integration of any preliminary formal education.
However, in order to deliver it the right way, there are at least two ingredients that need to be analyzed in-depth and carefully implemented.

 

The first ingredient is the training methodology itself. Since this is not the focus of this article, I recommend reading at least the following three articles, for a comprehensive conceptual coverage of this important ingredient:

• Why Conversational Leadership should be addressed with practical and actionable training (article “From Critical to Empowering Conversations: Let’s Change the World Using the C-FACTOR”)
• Why you should consider flipping the traditional training strategy (article “Flipping the Leadership Development Strategy with Actionable and Scalable Programs”)
• Which metrics should be measured when training on conversational leadership (article “8 Key Metrics to Ensure a Successful Practical Training on Critical Conversations”)

 

The second ingredient is a comprehensive Curriculum: one strategic plan based on a consistent vision, outlining all the elements required to cover not just the shortcuts, but also and mainly, the real pillars of sustainable skill set development.

The goal can’t be “fixing the issue” with some recommendations and a low-actionable formal class once in a while.
The outline of a proper Curriculum is instead the foreword to the delivery of a structured and credible solution for the long-lasting development of confidence in conversations and of self-awareness of leaders in their own skills and potential.

 

So, when you look at consistent practice-oriented training programs, made of scenarios covering the full spectrum of possible situations to practice with, make sure you double check the consistency of the following elements influencing the good application of Conversational Leadership skills:

1. Areas of leadership empowerment upon which to develop conversational mastery
2. Leadership values around those areas, to make sure that the training delivers skills aligned with and respecting key values
3. Types of conversations to practice with that cover the four areas of empowerment
4. Topics that these conversations can address
5. Types of people (“characters”) with whom the conversation, whatever it is, may take place
6. Styles of leadership to apply
7. Skills to train to master conversational leadership

 

The intersection of these “building blocks” defines not only the different situations with which it makes sense to practice and the type of training that should be covered by the program, but also the kind of elements that require measurement for monitoring improvements in performance and the overall result of the entire program.

Clearly, one thing is delivering general (although smart) knowledge about how to deal with critical conversations, another is to cover all the building blocks of a complete curriculum, set up a measurement system and deploy a consistent schedule for integrated practice.

Let’s delve deeper and see how these building blocks relate to each other and how they can be the best foundation of an amazing and comprehensive training program on Conversational Leadership.

 

1. Areas of leadership empowerment

The first founding pillar of a training curriculum on Conversational Leadership should answer the question: what areas of leadership influence can be covered through conversations? It’s a very important question.
I frequently see that the subject is dealt with using a very tactical approach, by listing a number of “difficult” conversations as they come to mind. However, the list of conversations should be the last step in a more in-depth analysis.

 

Starting the reflection by identifying the main areas of leadership empowerment is a much better way to proceed. Incidentally, this element can be considered cross-culture and generally applicable to all types of organizations.
Even though the mix can vary slightly, I would recommend the following and well-balanced short-list of empowering areas:

Lead. This is the key area of empowerment of leaders. It’s where conversations can drive action and solve potential issues.
Inspire. This area is the foreword of any engagement. People want to be part of something and inspiring conversations are the means to bring them in.
Support. Once employees are in the field, they expect leaders to support them. Either because they ask for support or because their leaders understand it’s time to nudge them.
Discover. Reciprocal discovery conversations allow leaders to remove blind spots and be fully aligned with the reality.

In my experience, these are the core areas upon which it makes sense to design any training program on Conversational Leadership.

 

2. Leadership values

Before starting to play with conversational tips and tricks, it is essential to ensure that any technique, shortcuts and recommendations are aligned to a set of values that reflect the organization’s goals.

This interesting article by Jim Collins sets forth some important considerations on the importance of aligning actions with value.
The questions you should ask yourself are: does the curriculum you are referring to sound grounded in terms of value? Do those values reflect your values? To what extent?

 

It’s very important because if you value honesty, for instance, you can’t support a conversational technique that involves hiding unpleasant truths. And if you value being humble, you can’t incorporate a conversational approach based on cocky and arrogant directions.
Whatever the conversation, whatever the topic, whoever the counterpart: stay true to your core values. Always.

 

3. Types of conversations

Let’s face it: there are so many types of conversations to train in, that you can’t work out on all of them in one lifetime. So, you’d better plan smart.
Go for the great classic 80/20 approach and select the most important types of each area of empowerment.

You don’t need to cover all types of conversations.

They are too many and, most of all, the majority are either not as critical as they seem (at least in terms of real impact on results and performance) or they do not happen frequently enough to justify focusing your training program on it.

At the same time, please steer clear of “one approach solves all.” It’s not like that. Although I would agree that some general techniques can be applied all the time, practicing with a type of conversation means gaining experience with that specific type of conversation, which is different from any other.

 

I would recommend selecting 3-4 types of conversations for each empowerment area. To make sure you cover what’s really needed.
A good approach can be that of dividing the types of conversations in groups, such as:

• Conversations happening frequently and/or pushing things forward
• Conversations happening less frequently, but necessary for setting the grounds for better performance
• Other types of conversations that can make a difference when things get really though

 

4. Topics

Don’t get confused here. Topics and types of conversations are not the same thing.
A type of conversation can be, for instance, giving feedback (I would connect this between the Lead and the Inspire areas of empowerment and I would group it within those conversations happening less frequently, but necessary for setting the foundation for better performance); a topic for this type of conversation could be the performance, attitude or a recent accident, etc.

Each type of conversation includes an abundance of possible topics, which is why. However, topics are very important to consider in one curriculum since they are one of the key elements toward turning a type of conversation (which is a conceptual thing) into a situation (which is a much more practical thing and that can be addressed with practical training by means of role playing and/or digital role playing for training conversational skills).

 

A good way to make order of topics is to organize them with a matrix that considers:

• On one dimension, the scope of dealing with that topic. To be very straightforward, here I would recommend the scope being either to review (something happened in the past) or to plan (something for the future). Of course, each topic can carry (and usually it does) a piece of both. However, this classification is useful to select truly actionable topics.

• On the second dimension, the domain in which that topic is set. Here I would recommend distinguishing between performance/results (very objective) and relationship/approach (the subjective side). Again, very actionable.

 

So, for example, you may want to focus part of the training on the area of Support, addressing a type of conversation dealing with Ease the Change by discussing the topic of Discrimination for the scope of planning a new approach in the relationship/approach domain.

Whatever the case and the example, this approach to curriculum planning will ensure you define a proper pathway designed with clear directions in mind.

 

5. Types of people

One of the factors in turning a conceptual type of conversation (i.e. “delegate”) into a trainable situation, is the type of person the conversation is done with. Of course, you can’t design a conversational training program that includes practicing with any and all human beings on earth.

That’s why you need to select a limited range of “characters” that makes sense to practice with. Again, the 80/20 principle can help here.
Some types of characters are more “interesting” than others to play with.

 

The key criteria of selection here could possibly be:

• How common that character is, so what are the odds of facing that character in our next critical conversation
• How difficult it is to deal with such character once the conversation is started

 

Of course, the selection needs to consider several elements such as: the way characters think, the way they behave and the way they communicate. There are several models to define the key traits that determine the way in which people deal with conversations.
This article (“Building Authentic Characters for Effective Digital Role Plays”) outlines the most widely used and I would recommend using more than one model at the same time, to make sure you have a broader vision of the different aspects to consider.

 

6. Leadership styles

There is no such thing as one leadership style fitting all the situations. Each situation requires the application of a specific leadership style in order to achieve the best effects in terms of conversational outcome.

So, you should carefully connect the dots between the above elements of the curriculum that lead to different “situations” and make sure that each situation is then dealt with using the appropriate style of leadership.

 

This is a key step. Much too often I hear about things like “we have our own leadership style, coherent with our internal culture.” But the point is that no absolute approach is really performing at all the times.

Instead, it makes sense to say “we have our own competency model” and, from time to time, we support a different leadership style to adapt according to the specific conversation. And the specific conversation is the result of a situation which is the result of a mix of elements as described above.
Here is where you get the full potential of reasoning in terms of Conversational Leadership curriculum.

 

There are several leadership models defined as “styles” using different approaches that a leader should take when dealing with a situation. Pick one, but make sure you make an informed decision.

If I were to recommend one, I would definitely say Emotional Leadership and I would suggest exploring the 6 styles that make up a very comprehensive canvas of different approaches (this topic is well covered by this article “Using Situational Leadership to Manage Different Types of Conversations”).

 

7. Skills

Sometimes I see a certain degree of confusion around the subject of competency and skills mapping. This article specifically addresses the topic and shows how to connect the dots (and most importantly, how to relate the abstract concept of “competency model” to the more practical and actionable concept of “learning-by-doing” training).

With that clarification of which is which in the competency domain, I recommend sticking to a very well-structured skill set both for the design of the entire training program and for the selection of each scenario of practical training.

Conversational Leadership development is about behavior development and behaviors are the building blocks of skills. Therefore, it is very important to choose wisely.

 

Where to go from here

While reading these lines, you are probably planning or working on a training program about leadership. So, I hope I was able to deliver on the following:

• Conversational Leadership is increasingly becoming a part of the picture, which brings with it new challenges on the design side
• Working from the perspective of a well-structured curriculum is necessary to ensure consistency and measurability
• Since Conversational Leadership is acquired mostly through practical training, and since practical training in Conversational Leadership is best delivered through Digital Role Play, relying on a solid curriculum is the best way to approach the world of Digital Role Play design or selection

 

Most likely you will want to select a ready-made Digital Role Play solution, rather than building one from scratch.
In fact, creating Digital Role Plays is costly and time consuming and there are several solutions on the market that can well-fit your needs.

 

There are two articles I would recommend you read on these two topics:

• The first article (“The True Learning Scope Behind a Digital Role Play”) tells about the real learning scope of Digital Role Play and it explores the reasons why a Digital Role Play does not need to copycat your scripts and situations to be effective.

• The second article (“Making a Competency Models Truly Actionable in People’s Development”) mentioned earlier, shows how easy it is to connect ready-made Digital Role Play based on a structured curriculum with any proprietary Competency Models.

I hope this article was useful. I would welcome the opportunity to continue this conversation if you would like to comment below.

 

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