Q&A: Dave MacLeod talks about why scaling conversations is the new must-have leadership skill—and why alignment beats employee engagement

In his recent book, the ThoughtExchange co-founder and CEO Dave MacLeod explains his Rossland-based company's approach to helping organizations really hear their people and make better decisions.

Credit: Courtesy of ThoughtExchange

In his recent book, the CEO of ThoughtExchange explains the Rossland-based company’s approach to helping organizations really hear their people and make better decisions

As you’d expect from the title of his recent book, Dave MacLeod can more than hold his own in a conversation.

MacLeod is co-founder and CEO of Rossland-based ThoughtExchange, whose software lets leaders quickly and inclusively consult groups of all sizes about decisions. By using the online discussion management platform, organizations can also reduce gender, ethnicity and other biases by giving everyone a voice. “The company is based on this pretty simple idea of adding structure to a conversation to harness the wisdom of crowds,” MacLeod said during a previous chat with BCBusiness.

Simple or not, the concept is working. Since ThoughtExchange launched in 2010, it’s grown to about 200 employees and built a North American customer base that ranges from Fortune 500 companies to school districts.

MacLeod expands on his company’s approach in Scaling Conversations: How Leaders Access the Full Potential of People. In this (we couldn’t resist) conversation about the book, he weighs in on effective leadership, employee engagement and his personal mental health struggles. Oh, and margaritas.

For the complete interview, check out The BCBusiness Podcast.

Let’s start with a fundamental question: What is a conversation, and how can margaritas help explain that?

A waiter walks up to a group of people and says, “What would you like to drink?” The first loud person: “Beer. You know what? Round of beers. Am I right?” Everybody else says, “Sure, I’ll have a beer. Yeah, me too.”

And then someone says, “I don’t know—it’s the first sunny day in a long time, restrictions just got lifted, I hear you make a world-class margarita. I’d like a margarita.” And other people say, “You know what? That actually sounds pretty good—new information. I’d also like a margarita.” “You know what? Me too. Actually, man, let’s do a round of margaritas.” Except for the first person, who’s like, “Guys, beers! OK, I’m going to hold out and get my beer.”

The reason why that story is important is that humans converse. It’s one of our first ways that we compete with other species, is we have the ability to converse with one another. And the idea that you can share thinking and that you can arrive at a different idea than one that you began with is really important. A conversation means you’ve shared your thinking. You had a chance to evaluate other people’s thinking, maybe adopt a new point of view, and you have some sort of gained perspective. That’s important because that’s the essence of a conversation, and that doesn’t necessarily happen by accident.

Why do humans have so much trouble conversing in large groups?

In a word, bias. Bias creeps in, conscious and unconscious, but everybody’s experienced this. [When] you’re talking to six or seven people and you’re having an easy conversation, as soon as that number creeps into seven or eight or nine, one person starts taking the floor a bit more, and everyone else starts being sort of quiet. You have one or two loud, extroverted people.

Or online, there’s another version of that, which is in a threaded conversation, it might not be a vocally extroverted person, but seven or eight people, six people, five people in a thread might work out. But as soon as you get 10, you basically hear one or two people, and everyone else just backs off. It’s a behaviour of individuals, and it’s also the fact that biases starts to set in from the people thinking, You know what? It’s best for me to talk, and I’m going to hear from those that have something to say. And if they don’t say it, that’s their own fault.”

On that note, when organizations survey employees, what things do they typically get wrong?

The easiest way to describe it is, What’s your favourite ice cream, Nick? Is it mint, or is it licorice, or is it bubblegum?

And I would say pistachio.

Yeah, but you’re not allowed. Manufacturing people’s consent means limiting the number of choices in order to meaningfully get your way, regardless of which one they pick. A lot of closed-ended surveys have baked in the notion of, Well, we thought of all the ideas that we thought of, and we want people to then select from them. But baked in that is, Those are the only acceptable answers.

We all do lots of surveys—they’re valuable for benchmarking, for large data sets to be able to compare things. What they’re not valuable for is feeling like you had a chance to say something, feeling like you contributed a solution to a problem. Because picking from a pick list, that’s one of the main survey problems, is who came up with the list in the first place.

ThoughtExchange has been helping organizations affected by COVID and inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement to connect with and to learn from each other. But you think there’s a lot more work to be done. Beyond growing the business, what are you trying to achieve?

One, this idea that you can have a discussion with people digitally if you understand the components of it. We’ve now had tens of thousands of people in conversations, and today, on the anniversary of George Floyd being murdered, I think it’s important to highlight that ensuring Black lives matter is one very important conversation that people are able to have when they create a safe and scalable way to have a conversation.

We had a CEO reach out and talk to thousands of employees about ways to make their organization more effective as it relates to their Black employees. And he described that as the most important day of professional development in his career so far, to hear direct, prioritized comments from all of his workforce.

So I think that’s an incredibly important conversation to have. And then along with the history of systemic racism there’s a compounding problem, which is that there’s never been the technology to hear from people at scale, to hear what they think about things.

And so my bigger plan around this is to take this discussion management and show it for what it is, which is a category. We’re now partners with many of the world’s largest organization, some that we can name in marketing and some we can’t. But in the Global 2000 and the Fortune 500, the idea that you can actually scale a conversation and hear back from hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of people on any issue in the world is pretty powerful. And you don’t have to just send a survey—you can hear directly from people what they think.

You call scaling conversations the new leadership competency. Why is it so important for leaders to get behind this?

A leader needs the ability to go past their bias and the way they perceive the world. And I’ve heard this from many—I’ll be honest—white dudes who say, I don’t know, I make decisions on people that are willing to come up and tell me what they think. That’s really the best information, is people that have the courage to say what they think. And I don’t care what their gender is or what the colour skin they have or their level [in the] organization—they should just tell me what they think. Radical candour.

The flipside of that coin is, that’s kind of radically bullshit in a way. The idea that you believe, sitting on the top of the organization, that people have that sort of safety—they believe they wouldn’t be fired for saying, I think your strategy sucks, and it’s not going to work. Or that there wouldn’t be a limiting problem if they were a person of colour that actually has strong opinions, and that racism just shouldn’t be a thing, they should always be able to speak out, and everybody has an equal voice.

It’s a new leadership competency to scale a conversation by first saying, I need to find a tool that reduces bias out of the conversation, that we’re not going to wait for people to suddenly wake up and be anti-racist across the organization. What if we had a way to use technology to say, We want to hear your thoughts based on their merit, and we want to find important thoughts, and we’re going to remove any bias that people have?

That’s why it’s a competency I believe leaders need to get—not to be nice, not to be good. But the best organizations in the world will be diverse and will have access to diverse thinking, and they’ll crush all the companies that don’t have that same access and competency.

Your advice to leaders is, “Don’t engage, unify.” Can you talk about that?

The idea that employee engagement is a thing is something that I would like to see shift out of the language of leadership. If you’re sitting there thinking, I need to engage my employees, you have to step back and realize you’re being fundamentally patronizing. You’re saying, We, the important people, need to engage those who are obviously not. It presupposes that engaging our employees means they’re just, like, flitting around or something.

And the truth is, even during the pandemic, individuals became a lot more productive. They were working harder, longer hours, less time spent in commutes. They were very, very engaged, especially because of their organization—is it going to go bankrupt or not?

And so I feel pretty passionately about the idea that leaders, as soon as your language is like, Yeah, we need to do employee engagement, that’s because frankly, you’re not doing a good enough job of aligning what your smart, capable employees were hired to do with what you believe the vision of the organization should be. And if you lack alignment, then you might see people spinning their wheels and not successfully executing on your mission. But that’s not because they’re not engaged.

Every time you take the concept of engaged and put in alignment and unity, then all of a sudden you’re like, Yeah, how do we get people aligned on this? Not how do we get people engaged, because they’re probably sitting around watching Netflix. Which, frankly, unless you’ve hired terrible employees, they’re probably not.

It’s become an empty buzzword. It’s lost its meaning.

I think a), it’s lost its meaning, but b), there is this connection that’s happening since people are working from home across the board. I like to make this joke—spoiler alert: Sixth Sense—that we’re in this part of the movie right now where all of a sudden, Bruce Willis realizes—again, spoiler alert—he’s been dead the whole time. That’s the whole point. And it’s not that he just died a second ago. It’s a replayable movie; he’s been dead the whole time.

I believe something’s happening during the pandemic, which is leaders are like, Wow, people don’t want to commute in any more to come to these meetings that were super engaging, and I would really talk to them, and they’d get super fired up, and they’d all be very excited listening to me. And at the end of this movie, it turns out that now that you’re online, you see the fact that people are a little bit disengaged—they’re on mute, they’re not on video, they’re not showing up lately.

And you’re like, Wow, maybe it’s Zoom fatigue. Or maybe they’ve been dead the whole time. Maybe I’ve been wearing people out, but in a room, they fake it better. I think that’s the sort of reality that’s coming. Leaders are realizing, Turns out maybe the way I was leading even before the pandemic wasn’t exactly getting everyone as excited as I would like to believe.

If you want to scale conversations successfully, what are a few key things to keep in mind? When you’re coming up with questions, you need some kind of hierarchy, right?

People have a hierarchy of needs, and it’s a well-understood concept in marketing and in behavioural science. It basically states that if your basic needs of safety are not met, then you have a really hard time moving up a hierarchy to talk about some more-complex needs, like what sort of culture are you in, what sort of vision do you have for the organization, what sort of transformations are possible for a group of people.

Imagine somebody looking really upset walking into your office. They’re storming in, and they’re obviously recently in tears. And you’re like, “Hi, have a seat. First of all, before we say anything, can you mention one or two things you love about where we work? And next, could you give me your top three ideas for your vision for 2030?”

That would be insanity, right? No one would ever do that. However, do we do that? Do you do that? Because actually, I think we do. We send out these, Hey, we’re looking for your vision for 2030, and meanwhile, people are like, Well, I don’t know, I’m still in lockdown, my mom just got COVID and she’s already vaccinated but I can’t tell, and I just heard my kids might not be going back to school in September—again. And are we downsizing, or are we growing, or do we have funding? Is my job going to be around?

 And many leaders are like, We really need to vision the future right now. But I’m having conversations about where people are at. What’s on their mind? What are their concerns? What resources do they need now that we’re a hybrid organization? And so skipping over that basic need from people to talk about their safety and security and alignment.

What are some pointers for creating good questions to send or present to people?

If you need one wakeup call, every time you think about asking questions to a group of people online, just think to yourself, Would I say this to another actual human in front of me? Because it’s amazing how many times the answer is, No, actually, I wouldn’t.

In the book, you share the story of your struggles with mental health—suffering from panic attacks after your father passed away when you were in your mid 20s. As you say, if you start to look around, these mental health challenges are everywhere. With that in mind, it’s not really optional anymore, is it, for employers to check in on how their people are doing mentally? Or it shouldn’t be, anyway.

I don’t think employers need to or can replace professional help when it comes to mental health, and especially crisis. And I do look forward, as a CEO, to talk about how I had some pretty debilitating challenges with anxiety and hundreds of anxiety attacks and all sorts of things. Because every time I tell that story, someone comes up to me and says, I’ve had those, too, and I haven’t really told anybody. I just heard you tell 250 people. You’re CEO—is that OK?

Yeah, not only is it OK, but I realize I have a position of privilege to be able to speak like that and not be judged or concerned because I have a track record as a CEO, and so I have to walk that line carefully….Everyone can think of three people within their closest sphere of family and friends that are dealing with mental health issues. And if it’s not themselves, it’s someone very close to them. And yet organizations pretend a bit like it’s not happening and everyone has to be kind of OK all the time here. Or if you’re not feeling OK, that’s what you do outside of here, even though you’re spending the majority of your life at work.

I don’t want to conflate the two, because I don’t think organizations’ onus and responsibility is to now become mental health experts. But I do believe it’s for the benefit of the company and the individual to have leaders that check in.