Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind: An interview by Bob Morris

Boris Groysberg is a professor of business administration in the Organizational Behavior unit at the Harvard Business School. Currently, he teaches courses on talent management and leadership in the school’s MBA and Executive Education programs. He has won numerous awards for his research, which focuses on the challenge of managing human capital at small and large financial organizations across the world. His work focuses, in particular, on how firms can achieve a sustainable competitive advantage by engaging employees in the implementation of business strategy. Groysberg is author of the award-winning book Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance. A frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review, he has written many articles and case studies on how financial firms hire, engage, develop, retain, and communicate with their talented employees. Before joining the Harvard Business School faculty, he worked at IBM.

Michael Slind is a writer, editor, and communication consultant. He served as managing editor and as a senior editor at Fast Company magazine. During his tenure as its managing editor, Fast Company won a National Magazine Award for general excellence. Later, he worked at the Harvard Business School, where he collaborated with faculty members to write widely used case studies on corporate strategy and entrepreneurial management. As a consultant, Slind focuses on developing creative and strategically relevant solutions that meet the communication needs of his clients. In that role, he has undertaken projects for Tom Peters and other business thought leaders. He lives in Palo Alto, California.

Boris and Michael are co-authors of Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power Their Organizations (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012).

* * *

Morris: Before discussing Talk, Inc., a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Groysberg: Since my childhood, my parents made sure I received a well-rounded education in everything from music to math. Education always came first. They also entrusted me with lots of responsibilities, such as helping out at home. They taught me the value of hard work and that anything was achievable. I learned that there is always more than one solution to any problem, so it’s important to think creatively. My parents also showed me the importance of treating people fairly and nicely.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Slind: Before I found my way toward becoming a writer, editor, and communication professional, I studied history at the graduate level. (I have a master’s degree in that field from Cornell University; the focus of my studies was on U.S. history.) Although I decided against pursuing an academic career, I retain a deep commitment to what you might call the historical mind-set. In using that term, I mean a couple of things. First, the study of history taught me the value of analyzing any human endeavor in narrative terms. Whether you’re trying to understand the rise or fall of a nation, or the success or failure of a company, you’ll invariably benefit from viewing that phenomenon as a story—as a series of events that pivot around the problems that people face and the decisions that they make. My work as a journalist, and then as a writer of case studies at Harvard Business School, has only reinforced that lesson.

A second aspect of the historical mind-set is that it instills a keen sense of context. Historians insist on looking at every event in the light of the conditions that surround it. They try to see the big picture. In thinking and writing about the world of business, I’ve tried to apply that same kind of contextual awareness to the study of, say, a company and its competitive challenges. What’s more, I’ve come to believe that the best business leaders are those who view their company in a broad strategic context—who, for example, see how the company fits within a larger industrial ecosystem.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Groysberg: I grew up recognizing the importance of numbers. I valued hard skills—math, accounting, finance. Once I was working full-time, my biggest “ah-ha” was that the business world is very social. I came to understand the importance of soft skills like communication and networking. Hard skills are not the only skills you need to succeed. You also have to be able to navigate the social side of business.

Morris: To what extent (if any) do business executives have significantly different problems – and significantly more difficult problems than they had, let’s say, five years ago?

Grosyberg: Maybe not in the last five years, but over last decade, being an executive has become increasingly complicated. I and my colleagues did a project in which we examined the skills required to succeed in seven different C-level jobs. We evaluated the skills that had been needed in the past, the skills that were currently needed, and the skills that would be needed in the future (HBR Blog Network: “It’s Harder than Ever to Be a Senior Executive”). We found that the required skillset has been changing, it will continue to change, and it’s change at an ever-faster pace. Social skills are indeed becoming more important, but hard skills are not becoming any less important. It’s not that the portion of the pie dedicated to social skills is growing while other portions shrink—it’s that the pie itself has gotten bigger. This change in the required skillset is driven by speed, globalization, and the expansion of a knowledge-based economy in which people skills—the ability to motivate and engage others—are becoming increasingly important. Communication skills are also becoming more important. It is critical to understand how executives can communicate with their employees to get the best outcomes. That’s why we wrote Talk, Inc.

Morris: In your opinion, what will be the greatest challenge that CEOs face during (let’s say) the next 3-5 years? Advice?

Groysberg: All C-level jobs are becoming more complicated, and the CEO position is no exception. There are many contributing trends, but let me mention five. First, the tenure of the CEO is a fraction of what it was 40 years ago. Shareholders have CEOs on a short leash and give them little time to get things done. As a result, CEOs are trying to manage next-quarter earnings in lieu of building a sustainable enterprise. Short-term perspective and short-term decision-making do not allow businesses to reach their full potential.

Second, the stakeholder universe is much wider and more diverse than before. In addition to answering to the demands of customers and shareholders, businesses also must contend with the expectations of employees, communities, activists, the government—the list goes on. Therefore, being able to manage diverse stakeholders’ interests is becoming more important.

Third, current and future CEOs must manage with a more global mindset, and they must be able to manage diversity. Notably, managing diversity isn’t just about demographic categories like race and gender, but also about managing diverse skills and perspectives. CEOs must leverage diversity to build merit-based, inclusive cultures that fully leverage talent in the organization.

Fourth, CEOs are trying to stay closer to frontline employees and customers in order to get more accurate information and make better decisions in a world that is changing by the nanosecond. This requires excellent communication and a flattening of the organization.

Lastly, it is important for CEOs to build a high-performing, high-functioning management team that functions well, provides different perspectives, fosters open expression of ideas, and leverages diverse skills and creative solutions, all while ensuring that the core of the business remains healthy.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond.

Slind: As it happens, several of your favorite quotations align quite well with the four elements—intimacy, interactivity, inclusion, and intentionality—that make up the model of organizational conversation that we present in Talk, Inc. So let me respond to those quotes by using them as launch points for describing each element.

Morris: First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Slind: Inclusion is our term for the practice of engaging employees at all levels of a company in the work of telling the company’s story, and I’m hard put to think of a phrase that better captures the spirit of inclusion than “We have done it ourselves.” This bit of wisdom from the Tao Te Ching nicely conveys the way that the best leaders work to inspire a sense of ownership in their people by including them in a given project, or indeed in the life of their organization.

Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Slind: An essential idea behind the practice of interactivity within an organization is that useful knowledge and valuable insight are most likely to emerge when employees can engage in open, back-and-forth discussion with each other, and with their leaders. This quote by Voltaire highlights the value of allowing people to pursue an open-ended conversation about a given topic—to explore that topic in a way that makes room for multiple voices, and in a way that doesn’t prejudge what “the truth” might be.

Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Slind: A hallmark of what we call conversational intimacy is a recognition that leaders should strive to communicate with employees in ways that are direct, personal, and authentic. This pithy aphorism makes that same point. Too many leaders hide behind a corporate “self” (so to speak); they fail to see that “being themselves” can enhance their authority, instead of undermining it. That doesn’t mean that they need to be chummy when they interact with their people. But they need to give up the habit of communicating “from on high.”

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Slind: Implicit in this quote by Drucker is an emphasis on the primacy of strategic awareness—on the need for leaders to develop, and then to maintain, a clear sense of what “should be done.” Our term for that kind of awareness is intentionality. Even as they make communication in their company more open, leaders also need to make sure that all such communication ultimately supports the company’s overall strategic intent. Similarly, leaders need to keep in mind that there’s no point in communicating well if you don’t know why you’re communicating.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Talk, Inc. When and why did you decide to write it and do so in collaboration?

Groysberg: Mike and I had worked on a few cases together. Then, several years ago, we realized that we had a joint interest in communication, albeit for different reasons. Mike was interested in the function of communication. I, on the other hand, was intrigued by the challenges associated with strategy implementation and employee engagement. Again and again, for example, I’ve found that many executives are able to clearly articulate their company’s strategy to me—yet few other people in their organization seem to be aware of that strategy. It was a perplexing puzzle, and it was obviously a puzzle that involved communication. So Mike and I decided to collaborate on a project that would look at what works and what doesn’t work in this area.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain

Groysberg: I had five interesting insights while writing this book. First, I was astonished to see the significant amount of time executives were spending on communication. Second, I realized that great leaders used a conversational model of communication. Third, I came to understand the importance of engaging middle managers in communication processes, as that’s often where communication breaks down within an organization. Fourth, it is important to create an organizational culture in which conversational communication is fostered and allowed to thrive. Fifth, great leaders don’t necessarily spend more time on communication; they communicate more effectively, and therefore spend less time on communication while achieving great results.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in its final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Slind: We began with a research project whose focus was on organizational communication. We ended up with a book that’s essentially about organizational leadership.

Our goal was to discover innovative ideas and practices that related to how people conduct and manage communication within their companies. And we did just that. Talk, Inc., presents an overview of how organizational communication has changed over the past decade or so. But, more fundamentally, the book offers a broad vision of how conversationally adept leaders are building a two-way, trust-based relationship with people at every level of their organization. If all that we had to offer was a review of trends in the field of corporate communication, I’m not sure that we’d have gone to the trouble of writing a book. Instead, we realized at a certain point that these developments were coming together to form a new leadership model—a model that transcends the bounds of what people traditionally mean by “communication.” That was the key turning point in our work together, and it’s what kept us going with this project.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of an “organizational conversation”?

Slind: For us, the word “conversation” means something very important; it isn’t just a buzzword that you can use interchangeably with the word “communication.” Our core insight is that more and more leaders today are, in effect, applying the principles of personal conversation to the way that they conduct and manage communication within their companies. So the chief defining characteristic of organizational conversation is that it’s truly conversational. It’s bottom-up and face-to-face, rather than top-down; it’s two way, rather than one-way; and so forth. And, in that respect, it’s notably different from the “corporation communication” model that has long held sway in business life.

What do I mean here by “principles of personal conversation”? As we see it, ordinary person-to-person conversation has four basic attributes that distinguish it from other forms of communication: It’s intimate, it’s interactive, it’s inclusive, and it’s intentional. (I’ve said a bit about each of those qualities in my earlier comments in response to a few of your favorite quotations.)

Morris: What are the most significant differences between an organizational conversation and an organizational communication?

Groysberg: We spend our lives engaged in conversation. Think about two friends talking with each other. What are the key properties that define that interaction? We’ve identified four such properties: intimacy, interactivity, inclusion, and intentionality. But when you move into an organization environment, those four “I” properties are often destroyed by organizational politics, corporate structures, formal reporting relationships, differences in status, and so on. Our book is about creating flatter, more nimble organizations in which these “I’s” can survive and flourish. Creating opportunities for conversation, we argue, enables people and their leaders to create value.

Morris: Are organizational conversations both internal and external? Please explain.

Slind: To an important degree, the emergence of organizational conversation coincides with another key trend—namely, the disappearance of the line that used to separate internal communication from external communication. Once upon a time, leaders could develop one message framework for their employees, another for their customers, another for their investors, and so forth. Today, thanks largely to the emergence of the Internet, that approach is becoming less and less tenable. (To cite one common example: If you talk with your investors about the benefits of planned layoffs, you should assume that your employees will hear that message, too. And they’ll hear it instantaneously.) Ultimately, we believe, there is one conversation that people have about a company.

Although our book (with its emphasis on how leaders communicate with employees) focuses mainly on internal dynamics, we view organizational conversation as a process that extends beyond the boundaries of a company proper. What people outside a company say about that company matters to employees; it affects morale and performance. And what employees say about the company matters externally as well. In the book, we write about leaders who are not only encouraging employees to act as “brand ambassadors” or as company-sponsored thought leaders, but also training them how to do it—how to carry the content of an internal conversation to an outside audience.

Morris: I am intrigued by your clever use of what you identify as “Talk, Inc., Points” (TIPs) at the conclusion of each of the four Parts. For those who have not as yet read your brilliant book, please explain these “TIPs” chapter titles.

Slind: Thanks for highlighting those TIPs chapters. In talking about the book with reporters and readers, we’ve tended to neglect the “Talk, Inc., Points” material, and that’s unfortunate, since it’s in those brief chapters that we offer the most readily usable ideas that we have on how leaders can promote organizational conversation. Those chapters are full of bite-size, news-you-can-use items—nuggets of advice that we gleaned from our conversations with scores of business leaders.

But back to your specific question about the chapter titles: Each of these TIPs chapters corresponds to one of the four elements that make up our model of organizational conversation. Our goal in choosing titles for those chapters was to capture, directly and succinctly, what each element means in practice.

First, “Close Encounters”

Slind: This chapter presents advice on furthering conversational intimacy—a quality that is, in our view, a function of leadership. It’s about enabling leaders to get closer to their people. It’s about narrowing the institutional distances (and, in some cases, the physical distances) that separate leaders from employees. It’s about, well, encountering people in a context that allows a leader to be less aloof and more personal.

Next, “One Way, Two Way, New Way”

Slind: The essence of interactivity—the focus of this chapter—is ensuring that ideas and information move back and forth between people within a company. To achieve that goal, leaders are changing the way that they select and use communication channels. They’re moving away from one-way channels (such as print and broadcast media) and toward two-way channels, including those that involve new social-media platforms.

Also, “Amateur Hour”

Slind: Inclusion is the theme of this chapter, and aim here is to present ideas on how to involve employees in the work of creating organizational content. In the traditional model, senior leaders and professional communicators retain exclusive control over telling the company story. In the organizational-conversation model, other people within a company—amateurs, that is—are able to help tell that story.

Finally, “A Sense of Direction”

Slind: Here, we offer tips (or TIPs!) on how to pursue conversational intentionality. And intentionality, in our model, is all about strategy. It’s about using organizational conversation to further the goals of corporate strategy, and it’s about forging a strategy for building that conversation. In short, it’s about maintaining a sense of direction—a sense of where you want your company (and your company conversation) to go.

Morris: I commend you on the brilliant use of mini-case studies that focus on four quite different organizations: Hindustan Petroleum Corporation, Ltd, Cisco Systems, EMC Corporation, and Kingfisher PLC.

Here’s my question: However different the four may be in most respects, what do they share in common in terms of how they “walk the talk”?

Slind: You’re right. We set out to feature extended case studies of four disparate organizations (two are high-tech companies and two are in decidedly different industries, for example), but in the end these companies share a couple of essential attributes. Or, more to the point, their leaders do. First, the top executives at all four organizations impressed us with their extraordinarily high commitment to improving the practice of communication within their companies. In each instance, these leaders conveyed and exemplified a keen understanding that they—and not some set of designated professional communicators—had primary responsibility for promoting what we call “organizational conversation.” John Chambers (Cisco) takes time to speak directly to employees every month or so by means of his video blog. Ian Cheshire (Kingfisher PLC) is spearheading a conversation-driven transformation effort. And so on.

Second, these top leaders are willing to take big risks when it comes to changing the way that ideas and information flow within their companies. The leaders at Hindustan Petroleum, for example, invited thousands of employees to take part in a series of organizational vision-setting workshops. At EMC, leaders created an internal social-media platform and then let employees run with it. That’s what conversation-powered leadership is all about: You can’t enable organizational conversation if you don’t relinquish a measure of the control that leaders have traditionally had over the communication process. And when you let employees become full-fledged participants in that process, there’s no telling what they might say.

Morris: What are the unique leadership challenges when attempting to establish a culture within which organizational conversations thrive?

Groysberg: There are numerous challenges, so allow me to focus on just a few. It starts with leadership. Leaders who are engaging and who know how to motivate people are able to foster interactive, inclusive, intimate conversations. They lead by example, and they set the tone for what types of conversations are allowed and for how those conversations should unfold. They work to develop a clear strategy, a relatively flat structure, a set of robust systems that are transparent and easy to navigate, and a merit-based, inclusive culture that is open to dialog and debate. They create an environment that is easy on people, but hard on ideas—in others words, an environment that engages and supports people, yet also subjects them to the rigorous demands of serious conversation.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Talk, Inc., and is eager to transform his company’s culture into one within which organizational conversations thrive. Where to begin?

My first thought is that a CEO should start at the end—with intentionality. An effort to open up a conversation, or a series of conversations, within your organization will be most successful (and most sustainable) if you establish a clear, cohesive sense of the strategic goals that such conversations are meant to support. A good conversation is open, but it’s not aimless, as we like to say. Start by asking yourself (and, eventually, people throughout your company) a few basic questions. What do people talk about when they talk about this company? What do I want them to talk about? Where do I want this conversation to go?

Here’s another idea. Consider hiring a chief conversation officer—an individual who will take ownership of all aspects of the organizational-conversation process. This “CCO” figure would open up opportunities for employees to talk with their leaders and with each other, while also taking care to set an agenda for the larger conversation that unfolds inside and outside a company. Day in and day out, he or she would work to push you and everyone else in your organization to abandon the traditional “communication” mind-set, and to embrace practices that are intimate, interactive, inclusive, and intentional.

Now, actually creating such a position might or might not be a sensible idea. My point here isn’t to push something that could seem like a mere gimmick. But just thinking about this option will help a CEO to appreciate how vitally important it is to foster rich, dynamic communication within his or her organization. Indeed, the CEO might conclude that this role is one that he or she needs to claim—that he or she needs to act, in effect, as a chief conversation officer.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Groysberg: “Who should read this book and why?” Talk, Inc., is not about the internal communication function, it’s about leadership. Any leader in an organization, therefore, will benefit from the ideas presented in this book. Furthermore, if you implement these ideas correctly, you will be able to communicate far more effectively and far more efficiently. Again, it is all about maximizing organizational performance.

* * *

Boris and Mike cordially invite you to check out the website dedicated to their book, Talk, Inc.

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