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Why Small Interactions Matter
Business Journal

Why Small Interactions Matter

An experienced chief executive tells leaders how to make every workplace encounter more productive and engaging

A Q&A with Douglas Conant, former CEO of the Campbell Soup Company and author of TouchPoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments

No leader can be blamed for thinking how wonderful a week would be if it didn't have any meetings -- or any "I-just-need-a-minute" conversations in the hall or interruptions of any kind -- basically, a week with a to-do list and without people. Wouldn't that be a productive week?

Small everyday encounters define your impact on your organization and your reputation.

Not really, says Douglas Conant, former president and CEO of the Campbell Soup Company. All those meetings, chats, and interruptions are vital points of contact that leaders can use to get an awful lot of work done.

In his book TouchPoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments, Conant and his cowriter, Mette Norgaard, assert that every face-to-face conversation can promote a company's strategies and values and increase a leader's impact. Leaders can leverage each of those interactions to bolster employee engagement, set priorities, and get tasks moving.

In the following conversation, Conant explains touchpoints, how to manage them and get the most out of them, what to listen for, and how to engineer them. All this is worth the effort, according to Conant. Handling touchpoints the right way not only makes meetings and days more productive, it makes leaders more effective too.

GMJ: What is a "touchpoint"?

Douglas Conant: Touchpoints are everyday encounters in which there's an issue, there's you, and there's another person or another group of people. They are not necessarily planned meetings. [Gloria Mark, a researcher at] The University of California, Irvine did a study and found that most people only work for eleven minutes before someone interrupts them. And twice in those eleven minutes, they would interrupt themselves, like thinking, "Maybe I should check on this" or "Maybe I should check on that." So when you get down to the math of it, on average, people have four minutes of uninterrupted time at a stretch to work on things. They're always looking for time to do their real work around that because the reality is, if it's four minutes today, it's going to be three and a half minutes tomorrow.

As Mette and I deeply immersed ourselves in this subject, we realized that the real work for leaders is in dealing with all those encounters in a productive way. How effective are you in those minutes with those interruptions, those phone calls, and in those conversations with someone in the hall who's been meaning to talk to you or with someone you bump into on the plant floor who has a question for you? That's the real work of leadership. What you make out of all those small everyday encounters defines your impact on your organization and ultimately, your reputation.

For too long, people have thought about leadership as this big aspirational idea -- to become a leader, you've got to go to business school and you've got to read all these books. What we've found is that effective leaders are highly effective in these hundreds of touchpoints every day. That's where they have a chance to bring their strategies and their values to life in personally relevant ways.

GMJ: So the difference between a touchpoint and an interruption is the leader's perspective?

Conant: It is. Every interruption can be a touchpoint if you do three things in response to addressing an issue: listen, frame, and advance. We call it the touchpoint triad. Listen to the interruption, frame the issue in some way, and advance the conversation. That's how you handle a touchpoint -- and you can do it in twenty seconds. It's all about being very alert to these conversations and making the most of them instead of dismissing them so you can get back to work.

GMJ: Can you give me an example of how this works in the real world?

Conant: Let's say you encounter someone in the hall, and he has something to say to you. The first thing to do is listen intently. Then you make sure you understand whose issue it is. Is it his issue, is it your issue, or is it an issue the two of you share?

After you've listened intently for twenty seconds or however long it takes, frame the issue. You could say something like, "OK, as I understand it, this is what you're saying, and this is the situation we're facing." He confirms that, and then you find a way to advance the issue. If he needs your approval for something, you can say, "Go ahead" or "Wait a minute, please check with so and so." If it's his issue and he's just looking for your advice, you can offer some advice. But in every touchpoint, you want to advance things forward in some meaningful way.

GMJ: Listening, framing, and advancing sounds like it takes a lot of analytical energy and willingness to help. How do you find the energy and stay focused?

The four A's: You need to be alert, abundant, authentic, and adaptable.

Conant: We recommend that you go into every interaction with a mindset of how you can help. So after you listen, frame, and advance, at some point, ask yourself or the other person how that interaction went. Is there anything more you can do for him? It's that simple.

If you want people to be engaged in your company, you've got to be very engaged in those interactions. I would suggest it's better to bring energy to it than not. I find that when I practice this -- listen, frame, advance -- I look at it as an opportunity to be helpful every time I talk to someone. It gives me energy to get into the interaction.

GMJ: How does this affect productivity and efficiency?

Conant: To answer that, let me start with the four A's that we suggest people bring to these interactions. You need to be alert, abundant, authentic, and adaptable. Alert means you pay attention. Abundant means thinking in terms of possibilities, not limitations. To be authentic, you bring your whole self to these interactions. And being adaptable means bringing the necessary skill to the situation to be directive, consultative, or inspiring.

As we've been working on this concept for the better part of the last four and a half years, we've found that people who engage in this practice [intentionally] tend to be out in front of problems and in a more proactive position. Because workers become comfortable with leaders who do this, workers search them out earlier on an issue. Typically, [issues] are managed efficiently before they become big problems -- they're managed when they're smaller ones.

Now if you're not authentically engaged in the interaction or you're not really trying to help move an issue forward, you're going to find pretty quickly that employee engagement is going to slip. But if you commit to building a high-engagement culture, you have to commit to building capacity around managing touchpoints effectively.

GMJ: Right, but there are people who can take fifteen minutes to clear their throats. Can you listen, frame, and advance every touchpoint while still moving people to their point?

Conant: Yes. It's helped me over the years because I want to honor people and give them an opportunity to vet an issue if they need to. But like everyone, I've got a long to-do list every day, so I tend to want to get to the issue. What I have found is if I listen carefully and people know I'm tuned in, I can find a way to frame the issue and advance it more quickly than if they don't think I'm fully engaged.

But the other piece of that involves managing expectations, especially in terms of time. If the touchpoint is in the hall, I can always say, "I've only got two minutes now. How can I help you?" Then if we need to talk further, that person can drop me an email or we'll schedule a time to meet. But a lot of touchpoints can be adequately advanced quickly within a few minutes.

The reality is that you're dealing with people anyway, so you might as well be productive with them. Your alternative is to be dismissive or to avoid them. There's no evidence that that's a good way of becoming effective in the workplace. Besides, the fact is that in a touchpoint, you are typically dealing with people at a point when they actually want to talk with you. And, as we know, that doesn't happen every day, so we might as well make the most of it.

GMJ: Do you consider the idea of touchpoints a leadership model?

Conant: Not really. A leadership model can improve the effectiveness of the touchpoint, but no model that we've uncovered has ever felt perfect to everyone. Ultimately, people have to create their own way of walking in the world, but we think you have to work at that -- it doesn't just magically happen. What we suggest is to familiarize yourself with the leadership models that are out there. Do your homework, find a model that makes sense to you, and then make it your own.

Leadership does take work. And it should. If you aspire to be a leader, you ought to treat leadership as a craft, you ought to become a student of it, and you ought to work at it. And if you're not willing to work at it, well, you get what you give. I would assert that highly effective leaders are made more than they're born. Every leader I know who's been highly effective has worked hard at it, and they've been students of it. The more you're a student of leadership, the more you figure out what works for you and the more effective you're going to be.

-- Interviewed by Jennifer Robison

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