Why We Need to See One Another

Last week I had the chance to hang out with Trevor Noah at the Mastercard Inclusive Growth Summit (OK, we were in the same room, but that still counts, right? You can find Trevor at 1:37 in the video)?

The Summit was an amazing few days, though I admit that, at first, I found it more tiring than expected.

My recent experience with conferences feels like a post-pandemic reverberation: we’re returning to (more) normal professional routines (including time in the office and in-person gatherings), but these routines feel new enough that (a) They’re more tiring than they used to be; and (b) We can look at them with fresh eyes. This caused me to ask myself:

What is the purpose of seeing professional contacts in person?

More specifically: we’ve managed to build strong new relationships over nearly three years of a global pandemic. Might it be that all the social niceties were just a distraction? That we can get business done just fine, thank you very much, without ever meeting in person?

To me, the answer to these questions is both “yes” and “no.”

Yes, we can absolutely get much more done remotely than we thought.

Now that we’re less bounded by outdated norms, we can close new clients, raise capital, and build new, meaningful partnerships without ever getting on a plane. This is more efficient for everyone involved, and I’m surprised that more isn’t written about the positive social dividends of tens of millions of people working from home.

In fact, this all works just well enough that we could be forgiven for thinking that nothing of value happens in person. That, also, is a mistake.

We also need to invest, in person, in our most important professional relationships.

Our professional relationships are a series of interactions, leaps of faith, and surprises (both good and bad). To the extent that these relationships stay within well-grooved pathways, we can successfully manage them through a combination of Zoom, Slack and email.

But there’s a layer underneath that also must be nurtured.

It’s tempting to call this layer “trust” but that is just one outcome of being in relation with others.

Let’s unpack what it means to be in relation with others. It means we both create and discover shared experience in both present and past; develop an understanding of each others’ shared stories (both personal and professional) and common heritage. We weave together overlapping moments of identity, glimpses of one another’s motivation, and understanding the specifics of our  shared humanity. Because of how our brains are wired, these specifics are much more powerful than generalities.

All of these things tap into our basic, human sense of how we understand one another.

Now, think about what happens when something surprising occurs in one of our relationships (and nothing should surprise us any more since everything eventually happens).

One person tells the other the bad/surprising/complicated news. The other person has to figure out what to do with what they’ve just heard.

The information Person A told Person B is a tiny part of everything that’s just happened. And the question to ask is: how will Person B fill in the blanks when told this news?

Absent any relation, the answer is: randomly. The blanks will be filled in based on that person’s perspective at that moment on that day, absent any real anchor or points of reference.

But for two people in relation with each other, two people with a strong interpersonal foundation, those blanks will be filled in with shared narrative, shared experience, shared expectation, shared identity, all of which come together into what we clumsily call “trust.”

Ultimately, this feeds into the resilience of our relationships.

Because we know that curveballs are (always) coming.

The question is whether our relationships will be strong enough to withstand them.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to build resilient relationships without ever meeting in person—but it sure is harder.

Following up on my follow up

I no longer try to reply immediately to every email. It’s not only impossible, it leaves me reactive, tired, and less productive (though very busy). I still try to be very responsive most of the time, and even this only works if I’m pithy while also being predictable and clear when it will take me longer to reply.

Everyone has their own approach to managing their communication flow, and part of the trick is to get my flow and someone else’s flow in sync. This boils down to is a series of pairings: my communication has a tone, a style, and a cadence; and, when a communication flow is working well, that evolves into a nice groove of clear mutual expectations (again, in terms of tone, style and cadence) with the people I’m in touch with regularly.

Where things get dicey is in higher stakes, infrequent communications – and these are the ones that we want to be getting right: reconnecting with a (potential) donor; reaching out to invite someone to speak at your conference; asking for advice from someone I don’t know.

The unspoken reality is that, in the absence of a strong existing relationship, the person doing the cold call (email) is taking advantage of the email medium to interrupt someone and borrow some of their attention. The only way this works is either by being exceptionally brief and clear in these sorts of notes (which seems to happen almost never), or by writing a note that itself adds value in exchange for that interruption (by being interesting or useful to the recipient, not to the sender).

Lately I’ve been noticing a lot of bad email etiquette that wrongly supposes that no one will notice or care about being interrupted and asked for something. This feels like the unintended consequence of an unstated but widely-followed norm that personal emails merit a personal reply, even when they don’t.  The result is more and more people asking for things without stopping to think about how to complete the circle of the ask they are making.

Hints that this is going wrong are phrases like: “I know we haven’t been in touch for a while, but…” “I realize I’m emailing out of the blue, but…” “Things got busy on my end, but I’d like to continue the conversation we started…” and, the worst, “You don’t know me but…” Essentially, any first sentence with a “but” in it is a problem.

(Even worse is any chain that contains any of the above phrases and is followed, one day later, by some version of “Hey, why haven’t you replied to my out of the blue email that I wrote on my timeline in the hopes of getting your attention?”)

Email can be quick and immediate, but relationships are not, and trust is earned or unearned each and every day. Don’t be confused by the medium (quick, easy, immediate) and the expectations of the people who are reading your notes.  The technology has evolved very quickly, but our expectations march to a different drummer.

24 hours

I keep wondering what people are getting at when they put a huge effort into shaking hands, making conversation and swapping business cards and then disappear off the face of the earth.

Almost as bad is following up days or weeks later to say how nice it was to meet.  By choosing to (re)start your conversation weeks down the line when you have the option to do it within 24 hours you’re communicating that lots of other things are more important to you.  This conversation is low on your list.

That may be right.  Just be clear that it is a decision.

Systems and caring

Do you have a system in place that helps you let your customers (donors) let you know that you care?

What I see more often is that people either:

  1. Care about customers (donors) but don’t have a system
  2. Have a system but don’t really care (or don’t succeed in sending messages that communicate care)

That is, you want your customers to experience how much you care, and need to do this in a way that prioritizes the most important customers and doesn’t suck the life out of your communication or your relationship.

Usually what happens is either that people care tremendously but feel that a systematic approach will somehow undermine the purity of that relationship, or they figure that efficiency is really important so do things like send the exact same message to 20 people, which all 20 people see through immediately.

The tough part thing is that really caring doesn’t actually scale all that well, so your list has to remain shorter than you might like so that the roots can grow deeper.

Mentors and allies

Mentor should always be spelled with a capital “M.”

At most of my big corporate jobs, I, along with all my peers, was inevitably set up with a mentor (lower-case ‘m’), meaning someone more senior in the firm who was supposed to talk to me a couple of times a year.  Sometimes these relationships were worthwhile, sometimes they weren’t, but they were always arranged marriages.

The long-term damage was the notion that mentorship could be a check-the-box exercise, as in, “make sure every junior employee has a more senior mentor.”

Mentorship in the true sense of the word is a very rare thing.  A Mentor is someone who, over a number of years, is a guiding light in your life, a person who transcends a given role or job and provides perspective on the distant horizons – and helps you figure out if you want to get there, and, if yes, how to do it.

It’s pretty hard to look for mentors, though we all should – with the knowledge that they’re few and far between….maybe you’ll have a handful of them over the course of your life.

The step between here and there are allies (thought partners, co-conspirators, smart friends…call them what you will).  These are active, two-way relationships where everyone is creating value for each other.  They can run hot and cold given what you’re both up to, and they can and should be nourishing to everyone involved.  They are dynamic, and often informal.

What ends up happening is that, carrying around a perverse notion of mentorship, we think the people who can give us the best “advice” (loosely defined) are supposed to be older and more senior and powerful and accomplished than we are, so we look in all the wrong places, and underinvest in finding the real allies we need, today.

If the only time I hear from you

If the only time I hear from you is…

…when you want me to look at something you wrote

…or to help you get something published

…or when you’re looking for an introduction to someone

…or want to promote your competition/website/product/cause

…or when you’re looking for your next gig

…or when you’re asking me for money…

…well it might work once or twice but it won’t work out in the end.  Eventually this is going to be a dead end relationships.  And there aren’t a lot of markers on that road saying “WARNING: DEAD END AHEAD.”

No, you’ll just smack into the wall and crash.