A few years ago, I had an epiphany. I was on the top floor of a midtown Manhattan office tower after a three-hour roundtable meeting with a group of executives. I looked out the window and it all became clear. There were hundreds of buildings, and in each one there were at least a dozen executives who would benefit from the sort of conversation we had just enjoyed. But few of these executives had a trusted group of peers they could draw upon. And this was just one city!
You see, even though most of us spend hundreds of hours a year in conversation, we aren’t having enough of the right conversations—with the right people, focused on the right topics.
Why does this matter? In short, because great conversations help to shape the way we think about the world. Our beliefs influence our behaviors, which in turn influence outcomes. So, if you seek a different outcome—in any part of your life—it’s not enough just to act differently. You actually have to think differently.
These conversations can be especially valuable in our professional life. After all, how often have you wished you could discuss a work issue with someone else who really “gets it?” How should you deal with a micromanaging boss, a dysfunctional board, or a difficult colleague? What’s the likely impact of that new regulation, or that new technology? How do others juggle competing priorities, or think about their careers? You can’t always talk with colleagues, particularly as you rise in an organization. Family and friends can empathize, but it’s hard to truly appreciate the nuances of another person’s job, industry, or company.
In times of personal crisis, many of us rely on support groups to navigate difficult circumstances. To understand not just what happened, but also why, and what it means. To exchange ideas, to provide support, to share experiences, to bear witness. We say: “I’ve been there too. I know what you are going through. I have your back.”
Imagine if you had more opportunities in life for thoughtful, authentic group discussion without the backdrop of a crisis. Would you anticipate or solve problems better at work? Would you carry yourself in a more confident, authentic way? Would you develop more trusting relationships with people you respect? Would you enjoy a deeper feeling of community?
We kid ourselves into thinking that we actually have hundreds—or maybe thousands—of “friends” or “connections” on social media. We pretend it’s a substitute for deep personal relationships. But, of course, it’s not. In fact, social media often reflects a world of rainbows and unicorns, where relationships are inauthentic, edited, and transactional.
We all need to expect more. Or maybe we need to demand more. We have settled for too long without access to the conversations we need. We’ve recycled all the old excuses: “I don’t have time. It’s too hard. I don’t know how.” But, collectively, we do know how. It’s not too hard. And we need to make the time.
My epiphany helped to crystallize a vision that gets clearer by the day. Of a world in which every professional is both a sponsor and a member of one or more high-quality peer groups. A world in which great conversations are as integral to professional success as a personal computer or a smartphone.
We are in the early days of a profound shift: in business, in science, in government, and in society. Outdated assumptions and familiar patterns are likely to fail us. It’s clear that we can no longer rely on what we know ourselves. Instead, we need better ways to aggregate and refine what we know together. Business is personal and, in a transactional world, we all need to belong. Great conversations are a great place to start.
James Millar is the author of BUILDING BRIDGES: The Case for Executive Peer Networks (July 2018).
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