Let's face it: conference calls suck.
All jokes about corporate tedium aside, conference calls are not an effective means of communication. In theory, they allow people to collaborate efficiently from multiple locations. In reality, they actively work against human nature.
Anywhere from 55 to 93 percent of all communication is non-verbal; it's the smiles, winks, sighs, distracted texting and window-gazing that let us know what people really think--or when they've tuned out. Our brains are so hardwired to detect and interpret these silent signals that total strangers can pick up our moods in a manner of seconds ... without us ever speaking a single word.
Simply seeing business colleagues is insufficient, as any user of Skype or video conferencing can attest. Unless you're a phrenologist, there's little to gain from staring at someone's forehead during a business conversation (yes, it's great for children saying "hi" to nana and papa). Until video technology lets us look each other squarely in the eyes, it will suck only a little less than a conference call for complex conversations.
Forget too expensive video systems that put the entire conference room in a fish-bowl perspective. They are only marginally better at facilitating group discussions. There is always a blind spot where participants can hide, they require an investment in hardware and set up, and even then, we need get over the self-consciousness of staring at ourselves. And since everyone works remotely--whether from home, a branch office, the airport or the beach--productivity declines if we can only effectively video conference when we are all in a room together.
The phone may not be perfect, but it's a far better alternative than endless emails, or giving in to organizational attention deficit disorder.
A few tips to make conference calls more effective:
1. Manage expectations. Don't assume that conversation will flow naturally. In fact, don't assume that everyone knows the agenda or expects a "conversation" in the traditional sense, with back and forth, give and take. A conference call requires more structure to be productive. Once you accept the limitations of the medium and reset expectations, you will have a more effective call.
2. Set a clear agenda and reiterate it at the beginning of the call. It may sound like managing the minutiae, but the alternative is awkward silences, unprepared participants and a giant waste of time. On the flip side, the call is not an "open mic" for anyone to pile on their issues while everyone is assembled. An agenda will Focus the conversation, hitting that sweet spot between deep concentration and "anything goes" where creativity and problem solving happen.
3. Go around the horn. This is my personal favorite and a tactic I use on almost every call. Take a minute partway through the conversation and invite each person--by name--to offer his or her thoughts so far.
The intention is not to put anyone on the spot. In fact, you can give ample warning that everyone will be called on to participate.
Going "around the horn" gives everyone the opportunity to contribute. End the call with the same tactic: "Mike, anything we missed or should cover before we close out this issue? Bob?" Everyone gets the ball for a minute, and can toss it to the next participant.
Finally, use your face time wisely. Yes, conference calls suck. But they are a necessary evil. If you can't avoid them, you owe it to your team to make your more useful, valuable and infrequent in-person meetings as purposeful as possible.
Complex issues, strategic planning, sensitive conversations and even good ol' fashioned free-ranging conversations over a good meal and perhaps infused with the fruit of the vine are all better when done in person.
HighTower sets aside two multi-day meetings every year so our advisor partners can spend time together, discuss best practices and build the culture that is a clear differentiator in our space. This year, we've earmarked three more days for innovation, bringing together the best minds in the industry to reimagine what financial services means for both its practitioners and their clients.
Maybe we won't solve for toxic conference calls, but we'll certainly get more accomplished without the incessant chime announcing every new arrival.
Elliot S. Weissbluth is the Chief Executive Officer of HighTower, an industry leading financial services firm offering a unique platform that blends objective wealth management advice with innovative technology. Our dedication to transparency in wealth management for investors and comprehensive support for independent advisors sets us apart. See www.hightoweradvisors.com.