Leading Sustainable Organizations
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In 2004, when Brad Mills became the CEO of Lonmin, the British mining company operating in South Africa, it faced a depressing future. It was so rife with conflicts among management, labor, the local community, and dysfunctional organizational silos that it was hard to discern any collective vision for the company at all. So, as one of his first acts, Mills brought together 100 leaders from the company, along with unions, tribes, and the local community, to participate in a two-day-long designed conversation. The goal of the engagement? To envision a new, compelling future for Lonmin and its stakeholders.
Mills appealed to what the assembled representatives had in common — their humanity — promoting the idea that people can create something exciting by working together as human beings. During the next two days, conversations turned from initial animosity toward what they could build together. The stakeholders began to see themselves — their interests as well as their potential contributions — in Lonmin’s future.
Mills’ approach relies on a uniquely powerful perspective that is rare among executives: the ability to see an organization as a fundamentally linguistic entity. From this vantage, conversation is the primary organizing principle of organizational management. By “conversation,” we mean any linguistic means of communication, ranging from speaking and listening to writing and images. Put simply, a company is the sum of all corporate dialogues, what we call a “network of conversations.”
Conversation in the Leadership Context
Researchers have noted that compliance-based, command-and-control organizations are less viable in today’s global, pluralistic business networks where commercial success may depend on collaborative value creation with partners and customers. The “network of conversations” framing is a logical extension of this perspective. It points toward a fundamental corporate reality: Conversations, whether acknowledged or not, are going on all the time; unacknowledged conversations, however, are not being managed or led. Managers assume that passing along memos, directives, and policies constitutes “conversation,” but often these become mere “topics” of the real, informal conversations that are already occurring in the larger network. Recognizing and managing conversational networks can enrich and accelerate diverse information flows.
This ubiquity of conversations makes the “network of conversations” perspective not only powerful but also an imperative for managers and leaders. While there are many ways to classify conversations (functional, legal, gossip, etc.)