By Donna Fenn | May 16, 2011
Last week, I was in New Orleans for my daughter’s graduation from Tulane University and had the pleasure of hearing New York Times columnist and author Tom Friedman (The World is Flat; Hot Flat and Crowded) deliver the commencement speech. He talked about the youth-driven democracy movements in the Middle East, and he told new grads that while it may now be wildly difficult to get a job, it’s never been easier to create a job of your own (yep, my heart beat a little faster at that point). But my ears really perked up when he told them that “your lives may be digital, but politics is still analog…So get off Facebook and into someone’s face.” It was a call to good old-fashioned political activism, of course, but I couldn’t help thinking that it’s also a rallying call for entrepreneurs. The digital world enables and empowers so much that it’s frightfully easy to become enslaved by it: we forget that much of what goes into building a sustainable organization is still “analog.” So, with a nod to Tom Friedman, I suggest that you step away from your digital devices and get into someone’s face. Here are few suggestions:
- Schedule face time with your team. These days, many companies are run by teams that are either totally or partially virtual. You Webmaster lives in Kansas City, the sales team is in Cleveland, the CEO lives in Boston. Sure, videoconferencing and instant messaging works well on a day-to-day basis. But every six months or so, you need to get everyone together in the same room with just one goal: they should get to know and respect one another enough to feel invested in one another’s success and in your company’s future. That doesn’t happen online.
- Go to an industry trade show. But here’s the catch: let it be in someone else’s industry, not yours. If your company makes software, go to an apparel show; if you have an architecture firm, head over to a food show. Why? Because you won’t be burdened with trolling for new customers or sussing out your competition, so your mind will be uncluttered and open to new ideas. You’d be surprised at how much you can learn from people whose businesses look nothing like yours.
- Create a community presence. This is easy enough to do if your business has a local focus and is physically visible in your community. But what if your company’s focus is business-to-business services, or you’re squirreled away in an office park making widgets or staring at a screen all day? Join a local business alliance, organize your employees to volunteer at a local not-for-profit, serve on local boards, host community events at your office if you have the space. Why? Only face time can give your company the kind of brand identity that will help you retain and recruit employees, keep you abreast of local business issues that may impact you, and open your eyes to new opportunities that may be hiding in plain sight.
- Practice management by walking around (MBWA). Haven’t heard that in a while, have you? But MBWA, which was a standard practice at Hewlett Packard and was chronicled by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman in In Search of Excellence, is still relevant. The idea is that if you’re the CEO of a company, no matter how small or large, you should wander around and strike up random, impromptu conversations with people on a daily basis. You’ll learn a lot more about your employees and what’s really going on in your company than you would in a formal meeting.
- Network, but not how you think. A few weeks ago, I attended a dinner hosted by master networker Keith Ferrazzi (Who’s Got Your Back?), who assembled 30 or so friends in a Manhattan restaurant. We were all strangers, and Ferrazzi gave us just one ground rule for the evening: find something to like about everyone you talk to. Forget being impressive (”because everyone here is more impressive than you,” he warned), or making potentially useful business connections. Just find one thing to like about everyone. Think about the people who you value most in your business life: didn’t every lasting relationship start with “like?”
What do you do to make sure you have enough face time with your employees, your customers, and your community?