In 2012 Mina Chang became president and chief executive officer of Linking the World International, a humanitarian organization that does yeoman’s work in areas of global unrest and instability. As Chang assumed the role, she wanted to get a better sense of the organization’s groundwork around the world.
To find out the additional information she hoped to learn, Chang thought about sending an e-questionnaire to some of Linking the World International’s key personnel. But she knew that her outreach should feel more personal than just another CEO email showing up in an employee’s inbox. She also considered sending someone in her stead to do country-to-country reconnaissance and report back to her. But why send a delegate when Chang could just as easily–and more meaningfully–show up herself?
So that’s what she did. As Chang wrote two years ago in Forbes, she decided to meet with each of the Linking the World International teams in person. She spent a year traveling and getting to know the organization’s local directors in Haiti, Kenya, Thailand and everywhere in between. As a result, she learned more than she ever imagined.
Chang’s experience echoes my own personal leadership style. In a recent interview, I was asked “Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on?” My answer: Electronic communication is overrated.
Because, you see, sometimes you just have to show up face-to-face.
When you’re at the helm of an organization or business, you must be able to distinguish which opportunities and problems require your time, attention and your presence (that is your real-life presence, not your virtual one). It’s tempting to believe that being in charge means doing less and delegating more. But there are many times when deploying a representative, no matter how whip-smart the person is, simply can’t rival the in-person presence of the boss. Much in the same way that sending an email, no matter how detailed or comprehensive, can’t always take the place of talking face-to-face.
Forgoing Electronics and Making Things Personal
The advantages of face-to-face interaction are many, yet too often we rely on digital communication to connect, problem solve and exchange ideas. In an increasingly global marketplace, and with more employees working remotely, Internet calling, video conferencing, email, et al. are here to stay. While digital communication is unequivocally indispensable, it’s also imprecise. It’s faster, but flawed. Immediate, but impersonal. There’s no ability to read body language or hear tone of voice. Nuance is lost.
There is, of course, no stuffing the digital genie back in the bottle. A 2015 study by Elon University’s Emily Drago notes that according to the U.S. Census, 76 percent of American households reported having a computer in 2011, up from eight percent in 1984. Of those households equipped in that fashion, 72 percent reportedly accessed the internet; that number stood at 18 percent in 1998, the first year the Census tracked such data.
Furthermore, the study indicates that nearly every American owns a cellphone (90 percent of all adults and 97 percent of people under the age of 44). Both computers and cellphones have led to the creation of a new, electronic shorthand. Thanks to cellphone texting, we now have a hybrid language where acronyms, emoticons and Gifs are the new nouns, verbs and punctuation marks.
With such widespread adoption of technology in American households, the language of our digital shorthand has already crept into the workplace. I’ve certainly received a professional email with an “OMG’” or “LOL” or even an emoticon. Though I don’t exactly frown upon such a casual approach, I do worry about what it means for the future of business communications. Will CEOs and entrepreneurs 20 years from now have been so reliant on “text speak” that they have trouble expressing themselves in real life (or “IRL” as it were)? When you’re courting an investor or running a staff meeting, nothing takes the place of clear talking points and complete sentences.
The Paradox of Our Increasingly Wired World
There are so many ways to virtually connect, but we feel lonely and isolated nonetheless. The number of adults describing themselves as “lonely” has doubled since 1980, according to a recent study, and that number is likely to rise some more. Indeed, one study postulates that an entire generation of youngsters with substandard social abilities is being groomed, and that it isolates individuals from reality, leads to a desire for immediate gratification and impedes effective communication.
I’ve certainly seen how the need for instant gratification can play out among young executives who compulsively check their email inbox or cell phone every two minutes. Looking and hoping for what exactly? I don’t know. With every step that we are removed from reality, there is a heightened belief that a better, happier, more satisfying something is only a click away.
Too often our virtual focus distracts us from what’s in front of us. Too often our dependence on sending news keeps us from being where we need to be and seeing who we need to see. A “thinking of you” text message will never be the same as a knock at the door. Extending a firm handshake to express your gratitude will always be more memorable than dashing off a quick “Thx!” email.
The Science Behind In-Person Connection
Bottom line: Nothing can replace the trust and rapport you build from face-to-face meetings (although phone conversations are a very reliable stand-in). When you’re present with someone in the same room, you can read each other’s body language and facial expressions, both of which say more than your actual words. In fact, a UCLA study suggests that up to 93 percent of communication is determined by nonverbal cues.
What’s more, talking in person is far more efficient. According to one estimate, a 25-message email thread could be condensed into a five-minute conversation. Then, of course, there’s the elimination of privacy and security issues. When you discuss sensitive topics in person, you eliminate much of the risk that the information will get into the wrong hands.
My work as an investor and entrepreneur routinely takes me around the world. I’m often fascinated by the importance that other cultures place on face-to-face interactions and conversations. Being able to look someone in the eye when you speak to them is much more valued in Europe and Latin America than it is in the United States.
In my travels, I’ve discovered there’s really only one prerequisite you need for any new business relationship to thrive. And it’s this: Sharing a meal together.
Nothing sets a potential partnership better than a live and in-person sit-down. Sometimes the screens just don’t cut it because, as the lyrics of that classic 1968 love song so simply state, “ain’t nothing like the real thing.”
Marko Dimitrijevic is an award-winning investor and a pioneering expert on frontier markets (his book Frontier Investor: How to Prosper in the Next Emerging Markets is available on Amazon). As an entrepreneur whose run companies for more than 30 year and whose work requires global partnerships, Marko is certainly no stranger to the need for doing business remotely with the help of technology. However, he believes strongly that nothing beats an in-person interaction. Do you agree? Connect with Marko Dimitrijevic on LinkedIn and Twitter to weigh in on the discussion.