Leadership, Conversations, Results: My Interview with Chalmers Brothers
31 Mar 2021
One of the great benefits of my work is that it creates opportunities for me to get to know fascinating people. Among them is Chalmers Brothers, who recently stopped by one of the Vistage groups I work with. Chalmers presented his program titled Leadership, Conversations, Results. A couple of weeks after that session, I caught up with Chalmers to ask him a question that remained on my mind.
Chalmers is an extremely accomplished leadership development specialist who has authored two books used by certified coaching programs at multiple universities. He’s also spent 36 years working inside organizations to strengthen their culture, build accountability and trust, and enhance EQ (emotional quotient, also known as “emotional intelligence”).
When I interview subject matter experts, I strive to keep our conversations brief to ensure the audience can take away something meaningful with a minimal time investment. This is not one of those brief interviews as the question I asked Chalmers led to a much longer conversation that I know you’ll find beneficial.
Watch our discussion and discover what Chalmers shares in response to my question, “What’s the one thing that you want everyone to know about being an effective leader in 2021?”
Now go grab some coffee, sit back, and press play—you’ll be glad you did. After you’re done, don’t hesitate to hit me up with any questions you’ve developed. I’m always up for a meaningful conversation!
[00:05] Chad Harvey: Hey everybody. Chad Harvey here. It is my great pleasure to join you today with Chalmers Brothers. Say hi Chalmers.
[00:12] Chalmers Brothers: Hello. Hello.
[00:14] Chad Harvey: Chalmers has been a Vistage speaker for over 23 years. He’s also a former Chair. He’s the author of two books and he’s very fortunate – and proud I would imagine – that they have been adopted by the coaching certification programs at Georgetown and George Mason, as well as the MBA program at William & Mary College. The Newfield Network also uses his works in their coaching and certification programs.
[00:39] Chad Harvey: Chalmers began his career with Andersen Consulting. He’s been doing this work inside of organizations for around 36 years, I believe. He really focuses on workplace culture, building accountability, EQ and figuring out how to do that most elusive dance and bring people together and generate trust.
[00:59] Chad Harvey: It is my great privilege to welcome Chalmers here this morning. He also worked with one of my Vistage groups about two weeks ago. We had a fantastic session. “Leadership, Conversations, and Results” was the program – if you’re a Vistage member or chair and you’re looking for a great session. And while the session was three hours, I can only bring you a few moments here with Chalmers today, so we’ve got to get right down to the heart of it. I want to ask him, Chalmers, What’s the one thing that you want everybody to know about being an effective leader in 2021?
[01:35] Chalmers Brothers: For me, I’ve had the privilege, Chad, of asking thousands of leaders this question, “What do you get paid to do? Of all of the 10,000 things you have to do as a leader, what are the most important, most essential one or two or three things that you say you get paid to do as a leader? “As you might imagine leaders respond with, “I get paid to shape the culture. I get paid to drive execution. I get paid to improve processes, to motivate, to coach, to inspire, to build the next generation of leaders.” And all of this is spot on. My question always is, “That’s fantastic. Now what would a camera actually see you doing as you’re doing that? What is the human being who is doing all of those things actually doing?” And with a little reflection, “Well, I would be engaging with other humans. I’m talking and listening.”
[02:28] Chalmers Brothers: Chad, my come from is leaders get paid to have effective conversations. When it’s all said and done leaders can be understood as conversational architects and conversational engines. And reframing our understanding of the actual actions required for effective leadership through a conversational lens I have found to pay tremendous dividends, the ability to be much more purposeful about the conversations we require and the conversations we prohibit within our organizations. When we actually look at these different types of conversations, we can see that they create, they don’t just describe which leads us to, for me, a powerful, powerful underpinning, which is this; language isn’t just a tool for describing how things are. Yes, we describe it as language, but that’s not all that we do. Language has a generative and creative dimension to it. Most of our relationships aren’t physical, they’re not sexual; they’re conversation.
[03:28] Chalmers Brothers: With language, we create something called context and it’s not physical, but it’s real. How many of us have ever been in a conversation in which the context was set very powerfully? Very different experience than a conversation in which someone just launches right into the content. One of the most powerful leadership context I was ever taught is something called carefrontation. This capacity for great leaders. I believe, Chad, this separates what we can consider to be excellent leaders from those that are just middle of the pack. The capacity to care enough about somebody to enter into a conversation where you actually do talk about what needs to be talked about, but you do it in a way that the person feels taken care of. And this notion, this combination of candor and diplomacy, this spectacular blend of being very real and at the same time, demonstrating obvious care for the other person.
[04:28] Chalmers Brothers: The last thing I’ll say, just to kind of get us started here is that one other way that language and conversations come into play for leaders is that organizations themselves at their core can be understood as networks of conversations. Even the most technical manufacturing, heavy organization, when you look at it, one lens, a powerful lens to look through is that company is composed of human beings coordinating action, not by magic, but by virtue of certain types of conversations, which we call promises, commitments and agreements.
[05:05] Chalmers Brothers: I use these words interchangeably, but when you look at your organization and see it as a network of interdependent commitments, ways of intervening pop into view that do not pop into view when you view it through a different lens. And by this, I mean, now we can talk about making and managing commitments. Making effective requests, using valid responses, tools, like a responsible complaint as differentiated from complaining.
[05:33] Chalmers Brothers: But these mechanics of how do we actually collaborate, how do we actually work together? Because all organizations, my experience is this, you can coordinate action well, or you can coordinate action poorly, but you can’t not do it. You can’t not do it. You can only do it well or do it poorly. For me, with a strong foundation in language and conversations, these are the tools that we need to make dramatic improvements in real world productivity, not to mention accountability, because if you frame the whole organization as a network of commitments to begin with, accountability is obviously going to be central.
[06:15] Chad Harvey: I think your message is so spot on because I see so many leaders falling into the trap of process improvement and automation, and we’re going to invest in this and we’re going to improve our systems and we’re going to get greater productivity and they are missing the people component.
[06:33] Chalmers Brothers: Chad, I believe you’re exactly right. I believe from a leadership standpoint, what’s crucial our conversational, relational and emotional competencies. These are the competencies we need. What’s interesting for a lot of mid-market organizations anyway, many people get promoted into positions of leadership because they’ve demonstrated competency in functional and technical competencies. Nothing wrong with that, but those are not at all the competencies they need to be successful as a manager and as a leader.
[07:03] Chalmers Brothers: One of my friends went to a conference last year and Tom Peters, who’s a leadership guru from way back, said something to this effect. He said, “Everybody,” he said, “I’ve written 19 books and you don’t need to read any of them.” He said, “What you need are six words.” All right, six words. He said, “Hard is soft and soft is hard.” Yeah. What this means, what historically had been understood as the hard competencies, the functional, the technical, those are not that hard.
[07:32] Chalmers Brothers: Most organizations by the way are already set up with a pretty decent internal training mechanisms to build those skills when they are deficient. But what have historically been understood as the softer skills, the softer competent, the relationship skills, the conversational, the emotional competencies, these are hard. Hard in the sense that in many ways, most people have not been trained in any formal way on them and the organizations themselves do not already possessed, don’t already have a built-in internal process of training and skill building in these areas.
[08:08] Chalmers Brothers: Of course, this is what I focus on and what I believe is crucial. I believe technical and functional competencies in many ways are threshold competencies. That’s the cost of admission. That the cost to get in the door. I believe what really separates powerful and effective leaders as well as successful organizations are these conversational, relational and emotional competencies, which brings us of course to conversations and to the power of language.
[08:39] Chad Harvey: Everything that you’re saying here, Chalmers, it’s so funny. What keeps coming up for me is the greatest lie that’s ever told about organizational management and business, which is “It’s not personal” – because it is. It’s all personal and it’s scary and it’s messy. And you’re spot on; we’re not trained how to do this. We’re trained how to read a P&L, we’re trained how to do this, we’re trained how to do that, but all of these conversations … I love your idea of kind of an expanding network built within an organization that is the framework for this.
[09:10] Chalmers Brothers: Well, that’s why something in one department can impact another department because those departments are connected. Now they’re not connected physically, it’s a metaphor, but they’re connected via the network of interdependent commitments that the organization itself is. Chad, even broader than this, all the network of internal commitments that drive productivity, which is quantitative and culture, which is qualitative, internally all of those ultimately are in service to the external commitments that the organization is making to its customers, its clients. Our entire system of commerce is promised-based. Right?
[09:50] Chad Harvey: That’s right.
[09:51] Chalmers Brothers: What do we call promises between companies? Contracts. The technical word for a dollar bill is a promissory note. What it says in teeny tiny print on a credit card slip where they make you sign, almost always it’s, “I promise to pay according to the cardholder agreement.”
[10:10] Chalmers Brothers: For me, the longer I do this work, especially for those of us who live and work collaboratively, again, we are already connected with other human beings internally and externally to our organizations. We can be connected in such a way that it’s helpful and beneficial and productive and satisfying, or we can be connected in ways that it’s not. This notion of connectivity, interdependency inside an organization is to me central. Again, it happens in very specific ways. It’s not mysterious. It happens with promises, commitments, and agreements. So learning something in this area, these kinds of tools, these kinds of distinctions are very powerful.
[10:52] Chalmers Brothers: You said something else also; this is my 36th year doing work inside companies. I’ve had more conversations in the past five years with leaders about the conscious creation of workplace culture as a competitive advantage. I’ve had more conversations in the past five years about this in the first 31 years of my career combined. Something is going on right now, Chad, I believe in terms of leaders’ awareness of the importance of this non-physical, but very real dimension called organizational culture on the bottom line. Again, building culture, you don’t need shovels and ranks. You don’t need hammers. You need conversations. You need specific types of conversations. Now we can see again, we can harness the generative, not descriptive, the generative capacity of language.
[11:44] Chad Harvey: You’re absolutely right that something is going on. There’s a sea change going on. I’m going to leave it to the historians and the sociologists of the future looking back in their rearview mirror to see if this is a temporary blip or if this is a massive sea change in culture. I choose to believe it’s a massive sea change in culture and in our workforce in this country and in many respects internationally as well. I think it could be as profound an impact upon labor conditions as the Black Death was in the Middle Ages when all of a sudden talent was short and so people started getting paid instead of being bound to the land. I think this culture revolution that you are at the tip of the spear on here, Chalmers, is a fantastic thing and I applaud it.
[12:28] Chalmers Brothers: I think it’s absolutely happening. I think we can attribute it to many things, but among them is the much more widespread use of teams, where you have a much more of a collaborative work environment to begin with. You have flatter organizations where decision-making is purposely being decentralized, and so you can’t have all these levels of hierarchical decision-making and agreement consent, all that, because of the speed of everything.
[12:53] Chalmers Brothers: Also, I think younger people are just coming at the world and coming at work in different ways than we did in terms of what the expectations are. While the social contract of I’m going to give you a lifetime of work and you’re going to give me loyalty, that’s out the window. Many young people understand that they’re not going to stay in the same job or even the same career. But what I believe they are expecting is a work environment that can help you grow, a work environment that can help them develop, help them build their own skills, help them better prepare for life as they move forward, whether it’s in this organization or not.
[13:34] Chalmers Brothers: My sense is many leaders are understanding this and I believe the emphasis on culture building is here to stay. I just think there has been a sea change in how organizations work. Obviously if you and I were having a conversation right now about effective leadership in the 1950s, would our conversation be different than it is today?
[13:57] Chad Harvey: Boy would it.
[13:58] Chalmers Brothers: Yes.
[14:01] Chad Harvey: Well, I could talk with you for an hour or more about this, but we should probably land the plane. Any parting thoughts for our viewers out there?
[14:14] Chalmers Brothers: I’m going to offer … learning is crucial in a time of change as we’re undergoing now. One of the most powerful steps required for learning has nothing to do with your legs; it’s a language step. And it’s powerful declarations when we say internally or externally, “I don’t know. Folks when we declare, I don’t know, we’re not describing a state of affairs as much as we were producing something. What we’re producing is called a context or an opening for learning. I invite you to view I don’t know, not as the opposite of learning, as the threshold of learning. I don’t know is a necessary jumping off point from which learning can begin.
[14:54] Chalmers Brothers: With that, Chad, thank you so much. I invite everybody who’s listening be well, be successful and never stop learning.
[15:01] Chad Harvey: Thank you, Chalmers. Folks, there was power and there was magic in this conversation today and there was a lot of wisdom that was shared with you. So rewind, watch it twice, pay attention. As always stay healthy and be well. Thank you, Chalmers.
[15:15] Chalmers Brothers: Thanks again.