Book Review: Talk, Inc.

Trust is an essential element of leadership, but how exactly do we build that trust as leaders? Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind propose just that in their book, Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders use Conversation to Power their Organizations. It’s one of the best books I have read on “how” to embark on the journey of trust-building in organizations. It doesn’t settle for wordy but useless statements like “leaders should generate trust in their followers”. Rather, it provides numerous examples–from a number of cultures and industries–of what leaders are doing to embrace conversations in their organizations. These authentic conversations help to build the trust needed for organizations to thrive.

The authors present numerous ideas from mostly non-mainstream companies–many of which I hadn’t heard of before. I found this refreshing as they didn’t recycle the same old ideas (do we really ever need another commentary on GE’s work-out program?).. They interviewed leaders of a few Indian companies as well, presenting an intriguing cultural perspective that is important for us to understand as our organizations continue to globalize.

Groysberg and Slind argue that there has been a significant shift in organizations in recent years. Leaders simply cannot delegate communications to professional communicators. They must adopt organizational communication as their responsibility, not someone else’s. This shift has occurred for five main reasons (see page 7):
1. Economic Change – As workplaces become more knowledge-based, organizations must find more sophisticated ways to communicate.
2. Organizational Change – As organizations become flatter, all directions of communication (lateral, bottom-up etc.) are as important as top-down communication.
3. Global Change – Workforces are becoming more culturally diverse, and this is forcing organizations to adapt their communication amidst these cultural dynamics.
4. Generational Change – Millenials are infiltrating leadership positions and are expecting leaders to communicate directly with them.
5. Technological Change – Various technologies (including social media) are allowing direct access to the source, and enabling leaders to communicate in different ways to employees.

I have reached similar conclusions in my own research and still believe HR Leaders need to take on the social aspects of their organization. I believe that corporate communications functions in most organizations will become integrated into HR Departments (if they haven’t already), as organizations learn to understand and value the power of the collective voice of their employees. Talk, Inc. gives us numerous examples of “How” organizations are doing this, and I highly recommend it for any leader pondering a change effort in his/her organization. I also recommend it for any leader taking an a new leadership challenge. This book will give you the tools needed to better understand the intricate social and communication fabric of your organization.

Note: I purchased this book myself and have no affiliation with the authors or the publisher.

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The Art of HR: Building Trust

Effective HR leaders are able to generate trust from both employees and managers in their roles. Trust is a foundational building block of effective leadership. Without it, the entire spectrum of leadership collapses, no matter how talented individual leaders are. HR leaders must earn personal trust but also ensure the organization maintains its trust relationship with its employees.

Corporate executives can easily forget what life is really like for the front-line staff. This notion is capitalized on by the popular reality television show, Undercover Boss where CEOs put on disguises and work at the front lines to see how the work really gets done. Robert Kelley (1992) describes the high cost of leader worship in his work on followership. Kelley argues that “the errors of leadership are better overcome…by engaging everyone’s heroism rather than waiting for some improbable hero to emerge” (p. 21). HR leaders can ensure these followers are engaged and connected, but must be effective followers themselves. Ira

Chaleff (2003) describes five “courages” of effective followers. These courageous followers:

  1. Assume responsibility for their actions,
  2. Serve the people around them including their leaders,
  3. Challenge their leaders,
  4. Participate in transformative actions, and
  5. Take moral action in their organizations and with their leaders.

Effective HR leaders help provide a framework for these five courages to blossom and thrive in their organizations. They must be willing to courageously advocate on behalf of all stakeholders (employees, managers, shareholders, customers and the public) when no one else will.

One 2010 study on whistle-blowers in the pharmaceutical industry found that most whistle-blowers attempted to address problems internally first, before resorting to legal action. Each of the whistle-blowers then described the long and tortuous process of legal proceedings (Kesselheim, Studdert and Mello, 2010). Another study found that 89.7% of employees who filed false claims act lawsuits initially reported their concerns internally (as cited by Meinert, 2011). In a perfect world, these practices would not happen in structured environments. But organizations are comprised of imperfect, and occasionally, unethical people. A gutsy HR leader, with credibility from both employees and management, could prevent millions of dollars in litigation if these issues were dealt with internally and in a timely and ethical manner.

HR leaders have a responsibility—even an obligation—to ensure their organization always engages in ethical practices. They must do this by facilitating a high degree of trust and organizational distaste for unethical practices. Their organization’s long-term success is partially dependent on them doing this effectively.

Chaleff, I. (2003). The courageous follower: Standing up to and for our leaders. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Kelley, R.E. (1992). The power of followership: How to create leaders people want to follow and followers who lead themselves. New York: Doubleday.

Kesselheim, A.S., Studdert, D.M., & Mello, M.M. (2010, May 17). Whistle-blowers’ experiences in fraud litigation against pharmaceutical companies. The New England Journal of Medicine, 362(19), 1832-1839.

Meinert, D. (2011, April). Whistle-blowers: Threat or Asset?. HR Magazine, 27-32.

This post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, “The Art of HR”. For my final Doctoral project, I researched how Top Employers provide effective HR services to their organizations. I compiled my results into this book. Please email me directly if you would like a copy.