Powering Down to Show Up

Interviews with CEOs and entrepreneurs can be two things: self-delusional or self-interested, sometimes both.

On Sundays, The New York Times runs a column called Corner Office, in which a business leader of some sort weighs in on his or her company culture, ways of hiring, methods of doing business. Usually you get the sense that all of these executives are on their best behavior, well-coached by their press liaisons in how to come across as a compassionate and creative boss.

In reading these profiles, you begin to wonder why, if there are so many corporate leaders out there who really, really care about the well-being of their employees, who look for creativity in the workplace and who are so dedicated to hiring the best people, that the corporate workplace is such an unhappy one, filled with miserable workers who feel ill-fitted to their dead-end jobs.

These interview subjects are doubtless sincere when they describe their passion for their work, how they’ve learned to manage employees, what they look for in new hires. But there’s a certain similarity to these interviews, as if every executive has been coached from the same handbook of leadership interviews.

Every now and then, though, someone says something that makes so much sense that you hope the practice he or she speaks of is actually put into action. In this Sunday’s column, Seth Besmertnik, co-founder and chief executive of Conductor, a search-engine optimization company, said this:

“We have signs in every conference room in the office that say, “We respect our colleagues by not reading e-mail during meetings.” This is one of the few things that drive me absolutely insane. I’ve been in meetings where everyone around the room is either reading e-mail or doing something on their computer. It’s the most disrespectful thing. Let’s not meet if no one’s going to be paying attention.”

Well, bravo. How many meetings have you been in where no one is actually present mentally? Very little is that important that it can’t wait the 15 or 30 minutes that a meeting should take (and they shouldn’t take longer than 15).

We live in an age where it’s easier than ever to connect, but at the same time more difficult to engage. People chase the electronic high of receiving a digital message rather than the lasting satisfaction of an actual conversation. I know that in these blogs we advocate the virtual face-to-face of the platform, but part of that is more than the microsecond that involves a decisive click to find out more. It’s thinking and responding to a message in a way that brings you and your audience together to discuss ideas, rather than “like” a fleeting concept.

If, even at this search-engine optimization company – which, after all, lives by split-second digital clicks – people are encouraged or forced to turn off their smart phones or tablets and actually respect the physical presence and intelligence of a colleague, then surely it’s an important thing to remember in one’s own life.

Bob Hughes
Author: Bob Hughes
Robert J. Hughes ("Bob") was a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal for over a decade, specializing in culture reporting. He was the paper's theater reporter, wrote on publishing, the art and auction markets, television, music, film and philanthropy, and reviewed books.
  • Cinde Johnson

    Great article, Bob! I really liked Seth’s quote: “Let’s not meet if no one’s going to be paying attention.” ;)

  • Anonymous

    Love this, Bob. Our world is so crazy busy and we are training ourselves to pay attention to distractions. Putting down the electronics for 15 minutes is more than respectful to others (which is huge) but it’s doing our brains a favor so we don’t become neurotic goldfish that can’t focus longer than 30 seconds. Excellent post!

  • Andrea

    Bob, Thanks for both the perspective and the virtual kick in the ass. Sometimes it’s easy to just always be distracted. Especially in the world of over stimulation. I think you hit a nail in the head, now – to figure out how to spend most of the time being present. ~Andrea