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This decade’s revolution in digital communication has given us unprecedented access to information and entertainment, allowing us to connect with people, places and things in ways that were once unimaginable. It also presents a fantastic opportunity to business leaders.

However, while tools like online video conferencing and social networking sites take long-distance business relationships to higher levels every day, they have not eliminated the need for face-to-face meetings and relationship-building. Business executives still derive great benefit from travelling across the country, and beyond, to nurture the kind of connections that can only be made in person.

‘Social’ Networking vs. Conversation

LinkedIn, Facebook and Google+ connect us to people the world over. We are able to track down former colleagues and old friends, and interact with complete strangers, with ease. We can learn the basic facts about a person’s career, schedule and interests; we can communicate instantly with multiple individuals at once. We can share rich, powerful multimedia content to generate discussion and spark ideas.

Yet on some level, it seems these tools can lead us to misinterpret what it means to be “connected” as individuals in the modern world. I do fear there is a tendency – especially among rising young executives – to let the novelty of “connecting” distract from with the importance of fostering genuine, face-to-face connection through conversation.

Connecting on LinkedIn, for example, is more like exchanging business cards than building business relationships. While it is an extremely effective promotional and networking tool, LinkedIn does not foster valuable connections in the same way an in-person meeting does.

What We’re Missing – Beyond The Screen

Consider your own behavior. While it’s true that we can “meet” someone face-to-face over Skype, in a Google hangout or using FaceTime, we still pursue in-person interaction when it’s time to get down to business. Why is that?

The difference is, quite simply, what we are able to assess and experience by being with an individual in a genuine environment rather than a digital one. In person, we can better judge reactions to our questions. We can witness body language and observe how the person handles unpredictable situations as they unfold. It is in this situation that we develop a true sense of that person.

Regardless of a person’s generation or industry, personal meetings will continue to be critical foundations for successful business partnerships. Even leaders in digitally based businesses will always need to sit down across a table from one another and hash things out. The biggest deals are always executed in person, in unedited, unscripted settings.

Everything Has Its Place

So what exactly does this mean? Am I a Luddite who rejects the use of tools like Skype and FaceTime? Absolutely not! Is there anything to be gained from them? Without a doubt! As business moves at the speed of technology, there’s no time to lose in mastering these tools. In a perfect world, I might make the distinction this way:

  • In-person meetings establish and build relationships.
  • Technology allows us to more conveniently maintain them.

If you’ve met a potential partner while on vacation on a different coast — absolutely, “connect” on LinkedIn and read their experiences. Conversely, if you receive a notification that an unknown prospect has “added you to their circles” on Google+, look into grabbing lunch with them the next time you’re in the same city. And in the meantime, give them a call or set up a GoToMeeting and find out more about each other’s work. But it’s by meeting in person and being part of a spontaneous, authentic and lively interaction that you generate a meaningful connection.

It is important to be connected digitally. Just keep in mind that the purpose of digital connections is to enhance the business relationship, not supplant it.