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Avoid a Management Gaffe: Why Having Good Conversations Is More Important Than Ever for Business

by Jill Foster on March 11, 2009

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Guest post by Alice Bumgarner, professional writer and web content producer based in Durham, NC. Her writing covers careers, workplace issues, and (occasionally) parenting. She has written for the National Institute of Business Management and PINK magazine, to name a few. For over 15 years, Alice has worked in the industry in everything from parenting columns for Sesame Street online to hard-edged news features for Salon.com to travel pieces for inflight magazines. She can be reached through her blog And That Reminds Me.

Keep the door open
I once worked for a publisher in Washington, D.C., who almost always kept his office door closed. When he appeared in the doorway of my office, it was inevitably for one reason: to tell me I’d done something wrong.

You could find a lot of flaws with that management style, but I want to focus on just one: the way my boss closed himself off from conversation.

It was a management gaffe then. But it would be an even bigger mistake now, in the Age of the Conversation.

Regardless of what you do for a living
…if you’re not out there asking questions, listening, seeking input, collaborating and taking part in the larger conversation, you’re going to have trouble rolling with change. Because here’s the thing: a new style of conversation is transforming the way we do business.

Here’s where I’ve seen it happening lately:

1. Even Obama is picking up the phone to talk.
According to a New York Times article, he makes at least two dozen calls a day in an attempt to stay connected to — and glean information from — the outside world.

It’s no surprise that President Obama calls heads of state and high-ranking advisors. That’s a given. But he’s also tapping into a group of people outside “the bubble.” He’s using his spare moments (not something he has in spades) to stay connected to a larger, more-fluid-than-ever conversation, because that’s where he’ll hear reactions that are relevant, unpredictable, maybe even perspective-altering.

2. Smart business leaders have stopped frowning on water-cooler conversation, and some (like biggies Cisco and Microsoft) fully embrace the collaboration that social networks spark.

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I recently did an interview with Brad Brinegar, CEO of McKinney, an agency that propelled itself into the big league by taking innovative approaches to a business model that hasn’t changed much since the advent of television. At McKinney, they’re all about the conversation.

Creating conversational ‘nooks and crannies’
When you visit their former-tobacco-factory offices, you’ll notice lots of gathering spaces. Brinegar says he spent a year planning a space that would force more collaboration and conversation between left- and right-brainers. It has 50 nooks and crannies to allow for “natural interactions,” Brinegar told me. The office is sprawled across one-and-a-half floors, instead of climbing vertically. There’s Wi-Fi throughout, a coffee bar, and no mail delivery — you have to pick it up yourself, which means you’ll likely bump into someone on your way there.

Equally important, “it’s very easy to get to me,” he says. “I have glass walls, so people can always see me. My assistant has a heart attack because she can’t control the flow of people into my office.”

Another thing about a good conversation? It’s usually free. Which makes this one workplace trend sure to thrive throughout 2009.

(images used with permission by Alice Bumgarner)

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