[The transformative conversation I led] allowed us to discuss the undiscussable. It got things on the table that would have taken me years. Getting feedback from the employees is indispensable and putting it in a strategic context is important. We were there to discuss behaviors that were consequential; it wasn’t personal. We discovered things that could help us succeed or that were preventing us from succeeding.

Ed Ludwig, CEO, Becton Dickinson (BD)

We are living in turbulent times that demand continuous adaptation and agility. The pandemic, new technology such as AI, the Great Resignation, changing competitive demands, and changing customer requirements all demand an agile, high-commitment, high-performance organization that can respond. The transformative conversation Ed Ludwig describes was employed by four CEOs at Becton Dickinson (BD) and many of their key business, functional and regional managers from 1990 to 2020. This enabled BD to navigate many of the challenges above and, in turn, contributed to the record of sustained improvements in profits and shareholder value between 1990 and 2020.

Yet, by recent estimates, 70% of corporate efforts fail to achieve the sustained change they were intended to achieve. Why?

The reason is that leaders don’t learn the truth about the deeper causes of failures in organizational effectiveness. In virtually every business, key lower-level people — two to four levels below the top — know the whole unvarnished truth. But they fear telling senior management about why the essential goals of high trust, commitment, and performance are not being achieved. For rapid and sustainable change in these three fundamentals, honest transformative conversations are needed to reveal that truth.

When the CEO of Becton Dickinson called me in 1990 to help transform his company’s capacity to implement a new strategic direction, I had to find a way to help key leaders at multiple levels in the organization learn the truth about why they were ineffective in enacting their strategic direction, achieving their goals, and developing a healthy high trust, commitment, and performance culture. 

My colleagues at TruePoint — a consulting firm I co-founded — and I developed a process and principles for leading an Honest, Transformative Conversation. We taught these principles for leading this kind of process to Becton Dickinson’s key managers and later to hundreds of senior managers worldwide in many different industries. 

These conversations consistently revealed the same six organizational and leadership barriers to performance, trust, and commitment. We called these “silent killers” because, like cholesterol and hypertension in humans, they kill performance, trust, and commitment. 

What are the silent killers consistently reported to senior teams through the honest, transformative conversations that we observed in many companies?

  1. Unclear strategy, values, and conflicting priorities: This barrier makes it difficult to collaborate with different activities in implementing the new direction.
  2. An ineffective senior team: Senior team members were universally perceived to disagree about a new direction and priorities. Consequently, they communicated different directions and priorities to their own people, causing confusion, low trust, and a lack of commitment to execute.
  3. The Leader: The key executive – whether CEO or a business, functional or regional leader — was perceived by lower-level people to employ either top-down management or to be too laissez-faire in their management style. Honest conversations about the real causes of ineffectiveness were therefore not confronted, and constructive dialogue about what and how to change never occurred. 
  4. Poor coordination across silos: When functional departments or regions do not coordinate and collaborate effectively to execute strategies, the result is failure to implement initiatives effectively and in a timely fashion.
  5. Inadequate leadership development throughout the company: Senior leadership teams did not develop programs that rotate high-potential managers into challenging assignments in which they have no previous experience. To lead effectively when lacking substantive knowledge, managers are compelled to learn good leadership and management skills through practice because they can no longer use their substantive knowledge. Lacking that kind of program, competent general managers were not developed and the company fails to be agile and effective.
  6. The inability of lower levels to speak truth to power: This barrier prevents senior teams from learning about and transforming the first five barriers. Organizations remain stuck in neutral gear, unable to become the agile, high-commitment, high-performance organization they must be to survive and prosper in an environment of constant turbulence and change. 

Without an honest transformative conversation about silent killers, the organizations we studied were stuck in a vicious downward performance spiral they could not stop. 

An Honest, Transformative Conversation is a structured process that enables truth to speak to power about the six silent killers described above. Its structure and ground rules prevent blaming and defensiveness that shut down honesty. In partnership with Udemy Business, the team at TruePoint and I created a two-week, 20-session cohort-based course, Leading Transformative Conversations, that will teach your key leaders how to lead such a conversation. Through lectures and practice, they will learn about the following three iterative phases of a transformative conversation. 

The program will provide an overview of The Strategic Fitness Process (SFP), a structured process that guides leaders through an honest transformative conversation, which many organizations have gone on to use to conduct their own transformative conversations.

Honest transformative conversations are emotionally powerful. When leaders ask for honest feedback, communicate the unvarnished truth about what they heard to the larger organization, and make themselves accountable to lead change, trust, commitment, and performance improve dramatically across the workforce. When honest transformative conversations are conducted regularly, they enable continuous improvement. 

I look forward to seeing you on December 8th at the Transformative Conversations: Steps to Leading Organizational Change webinar, where I will explain what transformative conversations are, why they are so powerful, and the results they achieve. During the webinar, you will see a video of a leader describing how the transformative conversation she led changed her leadership forever, dramatically improved trust and commitment, and improved performance. 

Page Last Updated: December 2022