I think we’re all leaders because wherever we are, whatever we do, there’s always somebody who looks to us for answers.
Welcome to our interview with Valeria Maltoni. Valeria is Founder and CEO at Conversation Agent, LLC. She helps organizations attract opportunity and increase brand value through mastery of conversation and technology. She works with global brands and startups that want to multiply and retain customers.
Welcome Valeria, and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of Container13.
How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally.
I think it comes from two sides. I would bottom it up but also top it down. The top down is a little bit easier; there’s so much we are constantly thinking and reading about on leadership. Leadership is having that vision and having the discipline and the ability to bring in the right actors at that level who can help fill in all the roles where the leader doesn’t have a core competency or strength to do it directly and then orchestrate the conversation at that level. What happens at that level? How do people work together? How do we connect? Are they listening to each other? Are they learning from each other? Are they using their meetings or their conversations as tools to find and keep that purpose constantly—to negotiate the delta so to speak between what’s working and what can improve.
Then you have the rest of us who join organizations because of that vision. We join organizations because of that market conversation, which some of us call brand. The perception that there are a lot of interesting things going on that we can learn from, that it’s a place where we can improve ourselves, or at least where we can feel productive and hit our stride.
There is a spectrum at every level of how we show up. The more we are people who are intentional and proactive about our career, the more we desire those things that we look to do in our work, which is learning and doing interesting things, working with other people and achieving things or solving problems depending on who we are from a motivational standpoint.
Then the other end of the spectrum is, “I just want to do a good job.” I just want to feel that everything’s going to be fine and that things are not so hard for me. The reason, right or wrong, is what is right for you. So the opportunity is, how do I bring enough people of enough motivational and working traits to combine them together so as a collective, we can deliver on that vision? You see how complicated it immediately gets. There are a lot of moving parts.
What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
People want to do a good job. They really do, but sometimes we don’t do a good job at understanding their definition of a good job. For example, when I first came to the US where I was working in a non-profit organization where to my delight there was opportunity galore. You could dig yourself and bury yourself under work, burn out. And so the opportunity there was to try and test different things and see, “Hey, this works for me better than this other thing.”
At some point, I got “promoted.” There was no salary increase, but I got promoted to the administrative office where I started working with the Macintosh computer and desktop publishing program and figuring out how to lay out our publication. I was the author, sometimes an editor, sometimes a translator, but the desktop publishing part was new. I started spending more time in the office trying to figure it out. Because it was a non-profit, there were a lot of people who were quasi-retired working there because they enjoyed keeping a hand on being with people and being helpful. They weren’t after the money, per se, it was a values/value equation for them.
There was a woman, her name was Marion, who worked in the office. At first, Marion would just keep doing what she was doing. She worked with an electric typewriter, the fax machine, and took care of all the administrative details. And of course being the person I am, I always loved learning and doing new things. I started interacting with Marion seeing if she wanted to do more or different things. The reaction I got was surprising, but it taught me a very important lesson. She didn’t want to constantly make decisions. She said, “Just tell me what to do.” She did an amazing job once you told her this is what I need. She didn’t have the same desire and drive that I had to learn new things. It was stressful for her. But she was showing up and doing a great job in a very important role. So that is one way we can start thinking about do we have the right people in the right seats. She was taking on many of those things the rest of us didn’t have to worry about, so we could go and do other stuff.
Does it become a question of where do we work from strengths and is that good enough for us? And can we carve out opportunities even within those constraints to be more creative or to be more of where we bring our strength to bear?
What do people really lack and long for at work?
Purpose. It’s interesting because I was writing an article about this last night where I was thinking about Dan Pink and his book Drive. Pink speaks about intrinsic motivation. There are two kinds of motivations. There’s extrinsic motivation, which are the incentives—if you do this I give you that.
Then there’s intrinsic motivation where we come from when we want to do something. Some of us are in this space when we are pursuing a hobby or sport. We engage with how can I improve or how can I optimize what I’m doing. Pink found that we are more intrinsically motivated when we do this. Through his work of documenting Free Agent Nation, he discovered how so many more of us are working by ourselves or as intrapreneurs or consultants inside our organizations.
This intrinsic motivation is composed of three elements: Autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I see autonomy becoming a bigger thing because now free agency has now become intrapreneurship. There are more business models, there are more success stories, there are more people who decide this is the way they want to go. So this is a larger category and even the very talented people inside organizations, the desire has now become to go from autonomy to downright control. They want to have control of their time because we know when we have control of our time, we can work with what are the times when I am most alert.
Some people are night owls; some people are morning people, but the results are, “Hey I know that when the boss or when my team gives me a job, or I take a job as part of a team, I am promising to deliver.” And so within the parameters of everybody following-up and the milestones, the things I am responsible for or to deliver on, I am in control of deciding how I’m going to do that, which is very appealing to high performing people, the mastery part.
In the past, I remember in some companies where I worked we had official training programs and a training budget. I had carte blanche. I could buy any books. I could attend any training courses that I felt were going to contribute to my doing a better job. My boss never questioned any of it, I brought results back from those experiences. This was mastery and autonomy together.
But then I’m seeing the purpose. The purpose which is the third leg of this intrinsic motivation conversation is still very much an issue. It’s an issue because in some cultures we feel we have a lot of freedom, but in the end, we have this choice paralysis where we’re trying because of the way things are set up, because of the systems and because of everything that’s happened—you know the context. We try to do a combination of “all of the above, ” and sometimes we skew on the side of monetary value and sacrifice our values. And so we are off balance on our personal purpose.
And then there’s the purpose we buy into, which is the expressed vision of the organization. We may find that it’s something the organization and its leaders embody. Or we may find it’s a lot of messaging and perception rather than true reality. We bump against that wall when things are not going well, and then we’re forced to pay attention.
What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?
This is a difficult question because if you’re curious about what people think, it’s typically difficult to be direct because we’re always at different levels. We have different conversations at different levels.
If I’m on the shop floor or I have a very operational role where I’m constantly troubleshooting, etc., those are the type of things I’m thinking about. It may not be immediately apparent to me that there are things I can tell you about how operations are run that can help you improve the business because I’m so down in the weeds. I’m thinking about one of those pain points to be specific versus raising the conversation a little bit. It’s always interesting as to how can we learn to navigate all of those different levels of conversation. Also, how do we time it?
One of my CEOs who was my mentor used just to walk around on Fridays to join conversations or go to people’s offices and just sit down for a few minutes to talk about anything. That was his way of collecting observations from the environment. His job was to make sense of it and bring it all together. He had so much environmental information that he could start boiling it down to what could be more useful or what am I thinking about. His eye was on where the business was going—that was his lens. But he also had the ability to be there and just observe what was going on. What happens with leaders is that they often time shift themselves. They’re always on to what’s next and that means they’re never on to what’s now.
What is the most important question employees should ask leaders?
My first instinct would be to ask, “Where are we going?” When businesses and corporations were small versions of themselves—when they were starting to get established—they were more born from a market need or an opportunity. Then as these companies mature regarding how many different organizations can solve a problem, how many products can we have to do any one thing, and how many choices even with services that we have, it becomes even more important to have clarity on why are we here. What is our role? What is our vision? What do we want to bring to the table?
And then, there’s the further conversation around what is the ultimate purpose if we wanted to broaden the lens even more. We say businesses exist to make a profit. When you make a profit, you stay alive, but that is not the only reason why we have a business. A corporation can make collective promises and keep those promises. When we try to mine the corporation just for profit, we impoverish that corporation; we weaken it. We dig under it, so it becomes very fragile. Instead of giving the corporation strength and endurance and instead of that producing resilience inside the organization, it becomes how long it can expand with all this taking we do from it.
Where are we going? What is it that we do collectively here? What is my role in it? Organizations that do this well have objectives from the top leaders that roll down to the next level, and to the next level, etc. Then the people bottom it up as I started this conversation. They match, they meet, there is an encounter, and there are connection points with all moving parts.
What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?
I think we’re all leaders because wherever we are, whatever we do, there’s always somebody who looks to us for answers. And so, why are we here? What is it that we want to control? What is it we can master or want to master? What is our purpose? I think these questions are a good starting point for a conversation to think about, “How can we deliver ourselves better into the world?”
I know you are working on an initiative that relates to what we are working to accomplish in this forum. Can you share more information about what you’re trying to bring into the world?
I am starting something related. I don’t know yet what it’s going to be. It depends on upon how sequential and where the opportunity and the energy flows to it faster. I envision it as a face-to-face personal experience using conversations as a tool.
I see Conversation as a technology to take control— how we deliver ourselves into the world, and we can do that through the anatomy of what’s happening to ourselves, our bodies, and to our mind. When we have all these conversations, when we are alone with our thoughts, when we are reading and learning, when we have business relationships on the line, and when we want to connect with people who think like us.
One of the behaviors that we want emulate is what are the kinds of things we want to learn to bridge that gap? We find that we want to get back to learning and to be more in tune with ourselves, but we often don’t have the tools, so we go externally, and we try to use technology to augment us, or we look for answers from other people. Technology was created in our image, we already have an operating system, our brain. Part of which is the mind which plays tricks on us so it’s how do we work with the mind to enroll it or to let it go a little bit, so that we can go about doing our work.
Our operating system is the brain and how we interact with the world are the apps. Often, we do a lot of work at app level—so productivity, efficiencies, learning new tactics, buying shiny new objects, you name it. This approach doesn’t work to evolve our operating system. We need to work at the operating system level. When we do that, then we have the ability to achieve smarter aims.
It’s interesting because now we have the conversation about artificial intelligence, but unless we plan to write ourselves out of the equation, I think the next obvious step is to get smarter about what we aim for, so this is what I’m working on. It could be a course, and there’s going to be an in-person component. I will work on creating toolkits around every day opportunities to help us become smarter about how we can relate to each other.
I’m careful about saying it this way, but I state it as, “How can we master the language of influence?” In other words, at influencing how we think about things ourselves and creating better loops in our mind and not discard some of the good things we have going for us so quickly. And how can we relate better to others where they are at and where we are at too. So it’s about navigating that learning opportunity. Conversation is the software that comes with our operating system—our brain.
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