Wednesday, August 26, 2009
I've had a couple of recent incidents where I was reminded, yet again, of how important it is to meet in person on critical decisions.
I say this in a context where today most of my daily meetings have some phone component. FirstRain is across three sites: San Mateo, New York and Gurgaon and so most of our meetings and discussions will have at least one person on the phone. So we have had to get good at it. And we use GoToMeeting a lot (if you use WebEx today - try GoToMeeting - it's much better).
But there are two (or at least two) cases where telephone dramatically reduces the effectiveness of the discussion.
First is interviewing. I have been hiring a new executive at FirstRain over the past few months and as a result meeting lots of interesting candidates. Several weeks ago I interviewed a candidate over the phone who seemed very strong. Smooth, articulate, smart and asked great questions. I was impressed and told the recruiter I wanted to meet the candidate in person.
When I did I picked up on the subtleties that you just can't get on the phone. A level of arrogance and self service that was in tone and body language, not in the words spoken. I could go on.... but won't.... needless to say I didn't continue.
For board members interviewing CEOs this is even more important - you have to look at "presence" and that cannot be detected over the phone.
The second case is board meetings. Technically as a public company board member you are considered to have attended a board meeting whether you are on the phone or in person and so it understandably happens that one board member or another is often on the phone because of personal or other business commitments. This happened to me this summer and I didn't like it. I was in the UK on a call to California for 8 hours and I found it much more difficult to participate and contribute at the level I like to in board meetings. I did my best under less than perfect circumstances.
It is particularly important to be in person when working on big issues like people or strategy. When I work on executive compensation in the Compensation Committee I always want to be in the room talking with the CEO. I want to watch his eyes, listen to his voice and figure out what problem he is really trying to solve. Likewise when I am working on strategy and positioning I want to be very interactive, able to jump to the white board and reflect what I just heard back to the CEO so we can test and then polish the concepts.
This summer's experiences have been a good in-my-face reminder. Some topics are effective on the phone but when it comes to people in person wins every time.