The value of being there
Perhaps you saw Peter Sellers’ last movie, Being There (out in 1979, just this side of the Jurassic period). In it, a simple-minded gardener named Chance ends up being seen as a guru of sorts. By merely “being there,” he influences the rich and powerful with his simple observations.
I thought of this movie the other day when I had lunch with a friend who’s an executive in a rapidly growing business in the United Kingdom. The company received private equity money and, as you might imagine, is under much pressure to grow. As such, there are many moving parts.
My friend is naturally torn between family in the U.S. and the company in the U.K. He experimented with dialing into board meetings from the U.S. whilst (that’s U.K. speak for “while”) his mates are in a conference room in the U.K. Unfortunately, not “being there” is a problem. Out of sight, out of mind. A small decrease in effectiveness at the executive level can have deleterious effects on the individual and the business.
I experienced something similar years ago. I had a weekly executive meeting in California that became quite a burden to get to, so I started using videoconferencing. It was inadequate even though I had some of the best technology available. While showing up for a weekly meeting 1,000 miles away sounds extreme, it was far more effective.
I now appreciate the many benefits of a home office. I save on rent money, I enjoy the food and I have an extremely quick commute, although I can hit traffic early in the morning, mostly cats. (Yes, as I write this, I’ve brushed my teeth and am not in my pajamas.) However, when I coach executives, I show up in person or they visit me, regardless of where they have an office. Many of my clients are out of town.
People have chastised Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer for bringing back the Stone Age because she wants her people in a common work environment (they called them “offices” back in the time of the Flintstones). I have news for all of you writing apps in your mother’s kitchen: When your company gets big, you’ll be much better served by having your executives in the kitchen with you. Perhaps even an office!
There’s a big difference between routine, well-defined work (for example, call center operations) and executive conversation. Fostering collaboration and teamwork with bits and bites isn’t as effective as eyeballs and handshakes. Relationships in the executive suite are much better in person.
My friend is soon back on an airplane to the U.K., and I’m off to L.A., San Francisco and Miami in the next two week. Not because we love United Airlines; it’s just more effective.