Why Small Interactions Matter

Douglas Conant

An experienced chief executive tells leaders how to make every workplace encounter more productive and engaging.

Here is an excerpt from an especially interesting and informative Gallup Management Journal Q&A with Douglas Conant, former CEO of the Campbell Soup Company and author of TouchPoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments. The interview was conducted by Jennifer Robison, the Journal’s senior editor. To read the complete article, check out other resources, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

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No leader can be blamed for thinking how wonderful a week would be if it didn’t have any meetings — or any “I-just-need-a-minute” conversations in the hall or interruptions of any kind — basically, a week with a to-do list and without people. Wouldn’t that be a productive week?

Small everyday encounters define your impact on your organization and your reputation.

Not really, says Douglas Conant, former president and CEO of the Campbell Soup Company. All those meetings, chats, and interruptions are vital points of contact that leaders can use to get an awful lot of work done.

In his book TouchPoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments, Conant and his cowriter, Mette Norgaard, assert that every face-to-face conversation can promote a company’s strategies and values and increase a leader’s impact. Leaders can leverage each of those interactions to bolster employee engagement, set priorities, and get tasks moving.

In the following conversation, Conant explains touchpoints, how to manage them and get the most out of them, what to listen for, and how to engineer them. All this is worth the effort, according to Conant. Handling touchpoints the right way not only makes meetings and days more productive, it makes leaders more effective too.

GMJ: What is a “touchpoint”?

Conant: Touchpoints are everyday encounters in which there’s an issue, there’s you, and there’s another person or another group of people. They are not necessarily planned meetings. [Gloria Mark, a researcher at] The University of California, Irvine did a study and found that most people only work for eleven minutes before someone interrupts them. And twice in those eleven minutes, they would interrupt themselves, like thinking, “Maybe I should check on this” or “Maybe I should check on that.” So when you get down to the math of it, on average, people have four minutes of uninterrupted time at a stretch to work on things. They’re always looking for time to do their real work around that because the reality is, if it’s four minutes today, it’s going to be three and a half minutes tomorrow.

As Mette and I deeply immersed ourselves in this subject, we realized that the real work for leaders is in dealing with all those encounters in a productive way. How effective are you in those minutes with those interruptions, those phone calls, and in those conversations with someone in the hall who’s been meaning to talk to you or with someone you bump into on the plant floor who has a question for you? That’s the real work of leadership. What you make out of all those small everyday encounters defines your impact on your organization and ultimately, your reputation.

For too long, people have thought about leadership as this big aspirational idea — to become a leader, you’ve got to go to business school and you’ve got to read all these books. What we’ve found is that effective leaders are highly effective in these hundreds of touchpoints every day. That’s where they have a chance to bring their strategies and their values to life in personally relevant ways.

GMJ: So the difference between a touchpoint and an interruption is the leader’s perspective?

Conant: It is. Every interruption can be a touchpoint if you do three things in response to addressing an issue: listen, frame, and advance. We call it the touchpoint triad. Listen to the interruption, frame the issue in some way, and advance the conversation. That’s how you handle a touchpoint — and you can do it in twenty seconds. It’s all about being very alert to these conversations and making the most of them instead of dismissing them so you can get back to work.

GMJ: Can you give me an example of how this works in the real world?

Conant: Let’s say you encounter someone in the hall, and he has something to say to you. The first thing to do is listen intently. Then you make sure you understand whose issue it is. Is it his issue, is it your issue, or is it an issue the two of you share?

After you’ve listened intently for twenty seconds or however long it takes, frame the issue. You could say something like, “OK, as I understand it, this is what you’re saying, and this is the situation we’re facing.” He confirms that, and then you find a way to advance the issue. If he needs your approval for something, you can say, “Go ahead” or “Wait a minute, please check with so and so.” If it’s his issue and he’s just looking for your advice, you can offer some advice. But in every touchpoint, you want to advance things forward in some meaningful way.

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To read Jennifer’s other articles and interviews, please click here.

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