Bad human communication leaves us less room to grow. – Rowan Williams
In planning a trip to Toronto last month, I took on the challenge of setting up meetings with senior decision makers at a large multi-national organization. I’ve done a fair bit of work for the company locally and regionally, and the feedback’s been very positive. It made sense to me that head office should know about my work.
While my contacts made recommendations and sent out messages, I headed to the website to take a look at the corporate team. After all, I teach “start at the top”. Of the 11 people listed on the Senior Executive Team, one person did stand out as the best choice. My expectation was not necessarily that I would reach her, but that her executive assistant would provide me with information, a referral, etc.
This is a technique I have used for decades. In the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s, reaching for the top often meant I had one-on-one conversations with CEOs or Senior VPs. And while these conversations didn’t necessarily result in a sale, they were always incredibly valuable in terms of market research and relationship building for both of us and, for me, visibility for my company.
I knew times had changed, but I wasn’t at all prepared for what happened:
1. I could not get a phone number. This is a first for me. I’ve developed quite a research tool kit over the years and I’ve never been totally stumped when it comes to tracking down a phone number. Eventually I connected with Corporate and Public Affairs and a helpful woman gave me the number for the executive assistant.
2. This is what I encountered at that phone number:
(Thank you for calling ***. The employee you are trying to reach is not available. This line does not have voicemail services. Please try alternate methods such as email. Thank you.)
While there had been some media attention about large businesses in the U.S. shutting down voicemail, I had no idea this was also happening in Canada. I was, in a phrase, gob smacked!
3. After another conversation with Corporate and Public Affairs, about 30 more minutes of futile searching and even some random dialing while changing the last digit of the phone number (this did connect me with a person on a different floor who had no phone numbers for other divisions and didn’t know how to connect me with a receptionist anywhere), I bowed to the system and spent approximately an hour composing what I hoped was a compelling email.
In total, I spent about 4 hours doing various tasks in order to reach one person and set up one 15-minute meeting, and while this does speak to my persistence, it also illuminates how difficult we are making it to speak to each other. And this makes me very uncomfortable. Why?
1. We are placing “communication” in the hands of the few. I can look at the steps I took to achieve that meeting and know they aren’t available to everyone. From calling Corporate and Public Affairs to crafting an email that inspires someone to help me connect with someone who will take the time to meet with me … these actions demand a level of confidence and writing skills that aren’t available to everyone.
2. English is my first language and Canadian my culture. What about the individuals who represent brilliant products and services of value to this organization that come from other countries, speak other languages? How will they get through?
3. When we keep people out, we keep out ideas, possibilities. We limit growth. We choose to wear blinders that keep us focused only on what we already know. While I’m not a historian by any stretch, it seems to me this could be a sign of the downfall of a culture.
4. We are allowing our “to do” lists to rule us. At the core of shutting down voicemail, besides some cost savings, is our desire to control our day, our moments. We have things to do and why should we take the time to listen to messages we aren’t expecting, or speak with people we don’t know. In our endless pusuit of efficiency, we are boxing ourselves in, trading “to done” for relationships and opportunities.
Am I being thoughtful or nostalgic? Please share your thoughts.