You already know the numbers. The average professional receives around 304 emails each week, requiring some 28 hours to manage, according to Joseph McCormack, author of the book Brief. We also check our smartphones, he writes, roughly 150 times a day, often expressly to deal with work communication. And this is all not to mention the group messaging apps like Slack that seemingly more of us are immersed in every day.
So it's no wonder we tend to think of "messaging" as a primarily electronic activity (or else a marketing one)—and so it is. But that tendency can make it hard to see how the face-to-face conversations we have with colleagues in hallways, meeting rooms, and even elevators can still represent huge—and often untapped—opportunities to advance our careers. Here's how.
The starting point is to see every physical encounter as a potential leadership moment. What does that mean? Simply an occasion to influence, inspire, or motivate someone you work with. Or even just to leave them with an idea they hadn't thought of yet—an idea that came from you.
But you need to be intentional about doing that. Intention, in my experience anyway, is everything when it comes to leadership. For all the mythology surrounding him, many agree that Steve Jobs had an almost compulsive intention to lead—he was no reluctant leader—and his "intensity" was likewise remarkable (it's no accident that "intent" and "intensity" share the same linguistic root).
Honing your own leadership intentions is something you can do, even if you aren't in a leadership role yet—by continuously finding ways to shape others' opinions, influence their future actions, or just connect with them on a human level and making them feel good about the work they do. And the surest and simplest way to accomplish any of that is through conversation—the analog kind. But you first need to embrace the mind-set that this is something that matters to you.
An HR professional I coached had just come back from a leadership training program. He found himself in the cafeteria line, right next to the senior executive who'd sponsored the program. My client could've just made small talk, looked the other way, or fiddled with his phone, but instead he had the courage to look the executive in the eye and say: "I’m just back from our leadership bootcamp program, and I can’t thank you enough for sponsoring it. I learned so much about how I can lead the line groups as well as my direct reports."
When you can't think of something to say or a good question to ask—or feel uncomfortable doing that—just say thanks. Usually it's easier to think of something you're grateful for (however small) than it is to come up with something clever. And everyone likes to be thanked!
That conversation became the basis for a new, strong working relationship with the senior executive, who liked the HR manager’s enthusiasm and could sense his leadership intentions right off the bat.
Leaders today are expected to be "idea" people, and face-to-face encounters are still generally better occasions for doing this than a Slack channel or at the end of an email chain.
Ask yourself what idea you can share, what update you can provide, what insight you can offer in brief and informal interactions around your office. If you deliver an idea clearly and succinctly, you'll begin to subtly yet unobtrusively show off your leadership chops, even if your ideas aren't all taken up.
I have a client who makes a point of periodically getting into the office early and going to the coffee room at the same time her CEO does. Now, you can write that off as ingratiating if you like, but it's proven a savvy move. She’ll share an insight or an angle that's helped her or her team to bring in a new client. CEOs and leaders at all levels are glad to hear of successes like these, as long as the language used to communicate them isn't stuffed with "I, I, I" and "me, me, me."
If you're moving your team forward or coming up with some good ideas, it's worth telling someone about it—in person.
Your boss may have an open-door policy (or sit at a workspace with no door at all), but it's important to carefully read the situation before striking up a chat. Don’t just wander over and start talking. Instead, wait until she looks up, and politely ask, "Do you have a minute? I have something I’d like your view on." If she looks distracted, you might add, "Or should I come back?"
In email- and group-chat–dominated offices, people have to switch gears to go into conversation mode, so make sure you have a receptive audience before you launch into your topic face-to-face. If you do come back to your boss for that conversation, though, she’ll be able to give you her full attention, and you’ll be more likely to resolve the query and make a better decision than you might have had you just relegated the issue to an email thread. And chances are you’ll also look better in your boss’s eyes—because you'll be looking each other in the eye.
You aren't the only one swimming through a daily flood of impersonal communications—emails, texts, Google Hangout notifications, and routine phone calls. That makes face-to-face communication all the more important, especially at the leadership level. Just ask Elon Musk, who recently explained he'd be foregoing the services of a speechwriter because "my speeches are just a conversation [with] the audience."
Similarly, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings explained to the New York Times Magazine that he doesn’t have an office because "I just had no need for it. It is better for me to be meeting people all around the building."
Ultimately, the key to seizing these unplanned, conversational moments is simply to get in the habit of stepping back from your computer to go seek them out. The more you do—and if you can keep the four above tips in mind—you'll find yourself getting better at influencing others and building your career, one conversation at a time.