Mastering the art of executive small talk

As an executive, you have lots of work to do. In fact, you have so much to do that it sometimes feels like you are chained to your desk. Visits away from your desk are generally purposeful, brief, and mission-focused so that you can get back to the piles at hand. Your team members, on the other hand, want a boss that is approachable — someone that understands the work they do — and ventures out from time to time to see what goes on “in the trenches.” They want a boss that regularly is working on his or her MBWA — management by wandering around.

A lot of executives, however, confess that they are not good at small talk. “What do I talk about when I wander around or just show up in an employee’s cubicle?” The fine art of small talk is a learned skill for many, but it is an investment well worth the effort. Managers that are connected to their subordinates make better decisions, build stronger teams, and are trusted more by those around them.

So how does one improve the fine art of small talk as he or she practices MBWA? It begins with the recognition that small talk is an investment. It may not pay off with every conversation, but it will reap long-term benefits. Any long-term investment requires discipline — the force of habit that, in the case of MBWA, commits to regular times of “wandering” in order to stay connected. So as habitual as possible, commit yourself to getting away from your desk at least once each day to sit down in the cubicle of a different team member to talk and listen.

And what do I talk about? How do I open the conversation? Debra Fine, author of the best-selling The Fine Art of Small Talk, suggests managers memorize key opening questions that help jump-start conversations. “What have you got going on today?” “What do you find most interesting about the work you are doing?” or “Bring me up to date on…” If the initial reply you receive is a non-committal pleasantry, then be prepared to keep the conversation going with a follow up question: “Tell me more” or “I’m serious. I really would like to know.” If you have developed a work environment of care and approachability, your opening questions can even be of a personal nature concerning what they did over the weekend or how the family is doing. Questions that solicit feedback or ideas go a long way towards building trust and openness, but it’s probably best not to start there. Warm up the conversation a little before you jump into “I’d like your opinion about…” or “How do you think we should handle…?” But try to get there eventually. Your team will respect you for it.

The rules for keeping a conversation going are fundamental but worth repeating: Show genuine interest, listen more than you talk, and be honest and real. The art of small talk is about genuine conversation at a fundamental level, and even in small talk people can see right through disingenuous interest. Don’t lose sight of the primary reason why you are MBWA’ing in the first place — you want to hear from others, so make it a rule to initiate the conversation, and then shut up. When questions are asked back to you, answer them openly and honestly. If you don’t know the answer, say so. If you are not at liberty to share a sensitive piece of information, say so as well.

Every conversation must eventually come to an end, so have your exit strategy ready. Employees often are uncomfortable ending a conversation with the boss, so do them a favor by being ready to end it for them, with grace. Debra Fine suggests three exit strategies. The first is “wave the white flag.” In this exit strategy you conclude with statements like “I need to wrap this up in a few minutes, so is there anything else you want to tell me?” or “I have a meeting coming up in a few minutes, so let me repeat what I’ve heard you say.” Fine’s second exit strategy is called “I need…”: “I need to talk to Sean before he leaves…” or “I need to write these thoughts down before I forget them.” A third possible exit strategy is to ask for a referral: “Do you know someone else that can add similar insights to this issue?” and “Who do you know that…?”

Managing by wandering around (or “managing by walking around”) is an unstructured but intentional walk through the workplace, seemingly at random, to check with employees about the status of ongoing work or to hear their ideas and concerns. It may start with small talk, but it often ends with significant insight and perspective on the real issues facing your employees every day.

Kent Wilson (PhD) is a business practitioner and nonprofit leadership specialist. After running companies for 30 years, he now facilitates high-value CEO peer advisory groups and coaches each member with Vistage International in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at kent.wilson@vistage.com.