CEO Coaching: Talking Turkey

Direct Communication Requires Practice

At the time I wrote this, my kitchen counter was full of ingredients for Thanksgiving dinner. I like to cook, so it was a pleasure to pull it all together. If only potatoes and dressing were good for you. … My mind—perhaps from too much anticipated tryptophan—went from trussing turkey to talking turkey.

The Cambridge dictionary says “talking turkey” means having a direct, honest conversation. (I don’t really own a Cambridge dictionary, do you?) Although it seems implausible that many people would prefer indirect, dishonest conversation, the truth of the matter (perhaps the turkey of the matter?) is that much of the dysfunction in organizations is due to just that.

I primarily coach CEOs, which often involves helping the entire senior management team hit on all six cylinders (or electric current, for you Tesla owners). Everyone, including the CEO, gives each member of the team direct, honest feedback — both positive and negative. Approximately 63.7% of them have difficulty maintaining eye contact and using direct language. They stall and soften messages to the point of being mushed peas (these weren’t on my Thanksgiving menu). Seriously, the majority of these senior leaders are not, without practice, good at delivering direct, honest messages. Does that strike you as sad and fixable?

Likewise, many folks aren’t good at receiving direct messages. In my sessions with senior leaders, I insist that the only response they have to feedback is “thank you.” Defensive responses — even those cloaked as clarifying questions — pretty much guarantee that the person offering direct feedback won’t do it again! That’s also sad and fixable.

Delivering and receiving direct, honest communication doesn’t require a lot of study and theorizing — it just requires considerable practice. And it must start with the CEO.

I am 99.2% convinced that this “indirect and dishonest” issue is a top challenge in most organizations. And it can be fixed.

How about an early New Year’s resolution that you’ll only talk turkey next year? You can still be kind (if your motives are pure), but you cannot avoid the tough issues, and you must be willing to take and consider critical feedback. Next week, ask yourself if the conversations you had were direct and honest and if they were received openly.

Don’t be a chicken — talk turkey!

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