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Conversations Program at the Department of Treasury and Finance
By Mark Raymond and Mark Molony

In this case study we report on a project that we undertook with the Victorian Government Department of Treasury & Finance (DTF) in 2009 and 2010.  DTF has been committed to developing their leaders and building a constructive culture for a number of years, with some excellent results.  As a way of continuing to improve leadership capability and culture, we worked with DTF in designing and facilitating a leadership program "Conversations for Performance", aimed at improving the quality of everyday conversations that leaders and managers engage in.

The brief from DTF was to design a program that would assist DTF leaders and managers to be more skilled at having work-related conversations.  The program deliverable was to directly influence and change behaviour back in the workplace.  An essential part of designing the program was to understand the different types of conversations that DTF leaders and managers engage in. What kinds of conversations have the biggest impact on the DTF culture and in DTF achieving its objectives? The “big impact” conversations identified were:

In addition, DTF staff engage in a number of other conversations on a daily basis – e.g. conversations associated with being a service provider and adviser to other government departments, discussing policy initiatives, and managing and coordinating budget submissions.  Often the topics of these conversations are highly complex with far-reaching implications for a wide range of stakeholders. So while the program was geared towards the conversations that leaders and managers have with staff, we knew that the skills and frameworks applied in a variety of situations.

In consultation with DTF, we designed the program to focus on two main components. 

  1. Providing opportunities to practice different types of conversations that could be applied in a range of situations, such as giving and receiving feedback, exploring issues and generating action (very similar to coaching conversations), and a specific conversational approach to collaborating and coordinating with others known as “Making and Managing Commitments”.
  2. The second component explored more deeply the things that all human beings bring to every conversation, which affect the quality of conversations, but are often habitual and go unnoticed – how we listen and interpret, how we use language in our conversations, and a framework for understanding and managing our moods and emotions.  While we introduced a lot of theory in a short amount of time, a lot of the workshop involved participants conversing with each other about real work challenges and giving and receiving feedback from each other. We tried to create a fun, safe and challenging environment to support participants in their learning.

The workshops were attended by almost two thirds of leaders and managers within DTF (approximately 130 people), including the Secretary and Deputy Secretaries, through to VPS 5 level. The program was very well received and attendance and partcipation was excellent. Program evaluations indicated a high degree of relevance for participants and a willingness to engage in post workshop action learning activities back in the workplace. Common feedback themes from participants were that they valued the combination of common sense frameworks and also that the program delved a little deeper. As one participant commented; “This program was much more holistic and integrated than any similar program I’ve participated in”. We think that participants also took a lot from the notion that as part of being human we all interpret things and what’s said differently. The importance of not only being really clear when speaking (for example, when delegating work or giving feedback); but also the importance of gaining clarity as a listener through a combination of good questions and curiosity. Nearly every participant rated the overall program as good or excellent.

In a program like this, one of the challenges is to ensure that participants apply what they learnt after the workshop. About a month after the workshop, short follow up sessions were conducted to provide a refresher and to give participants an opportunity to share what they had practised, and to then discuss what they will do next. Especially pleasing was that about two thirds of the of the participants in the follow up sessions had put things into practice back at work – either by having their everyday conversations in a slightly different way or by having conversations that they ordinarily would not have had. Some of these were so called “difficult” conversations involving feedback; others involved discussing important issues in a clear and objective manner. Some reported that they were listening more effectively and others indicated that they were standing their ground more. Within teams and across workgroups, feedback suggested that participants were more conscious of gaining clarity and commitment from others when coordinating action together. This is the cornerstone of performance improvement and trust within workgroups.

From a personal perspective, this was a great project to be involved in, and we've been reflecting on what contributed to this program’s success. Here are a few thoughts:

Firstly, most participants came into the program with an open mind and were eager to participate and share their knowledge. We put this down to the great deal of work that had been done on leadership and culture within DTF over the years, and how the program was positioned within DTF.  In addition, the willingness of senior management to promote and attend the program sent a strong message to staff.

Secondly, the way DTF worked with together with us in designing the program and providing specific ideas and comments about how the program could be enhanced was incredibly useful.

Finally, this program demonstrated yet again the power and importance of conversational effectiveness in coordinating action, developing effective working relationships, facilitating learning and encouraging engagement and commitment to get the job done.  It’s truly curious why at times we take the power of conversations for granted and are reluctant to explore ways of improving this critical human discipline.

© Newfield Institute

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