The Power of Asynchronous Communication
One of the most valuable lessons that I’ve learned in working in a global business is the power of being able to work asynchronously. Despite having the tools to do so, most workplaces depend upon immediacy of communication to get things done. How many times have you answered the phone to hear a colleague on the other end asking “hey, did you read my email?”.
Sometimes, it’s because they need an answer right now. But I’ve found that more often it is because they’ve sent you a message that requires some amount of interpretation to help you understand. Sure, they used an asynchronous tool (email) but they’re unable to communicate asynchronously. It’s not to say there isn’t a time and a place for face to face conversations, but it’s fast becoming the norm that rather than sitting down, analyzing an issue, and creating good documentation that everyone can read and digest, we just call an emergency meeting, often that same day.
Throughout my career, I’ve almost always held remote positions. First domestically, then later for international firms, and most recently focused on working with manufacturers and vendors in Asia.
I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but working remotely builds skills that are extremely valuable not just in communicating across languages, borders, and time zones, but right here at home as well.
When I first transitioned from being a salesperson to a sales manager, I sat down with the owner of the company and we discussed various ways to train the new people that we were quickly adding to our team.
We made the mistake early on of thinking we could give each salesperson a “checklist” to work through with their customer, and this checklist would somehow be an adequate substitute for experience.
We were wrong. For starters, by the time we were done with the checklist, it was a spreadsheet with more than a dozen tabs. It’s actually so overwhelming I keep in on hand for those times, about once per year, that someone will suggest that all we need to get better results is to give the sales team a checklist. Now I can send them to this blog post 🙂
More importantly, we learned that the best manuals are valuable as a reference but no substitute for experience. It’s like the manual for my car; valuable to have, but no substitute for driving experience.
A few iterations (more than a few, if I recall correctly) later and we had dialed-in a process that remains more or less unchanged a decade later.
The key to our success is having our account managers spend a good deal of time, often far more than they think they need, creating a well-written brief that represents either the customer’s or our firm’s needs, and can be understood by stakeholders that are often separated by time zones, continents, and languages. I tell everyone that if you’re not spending three to six hours on a kickoff document, you’re probably leaving out important information.
English to English Translation
One of the best communication lessons that I learned occurred relatively early in my career. I went to work for a company based in New Zealand as their sole US-based salesperson. Working foreign colleagues whose first language is english give you a false sense of security; the convenience of sharing a common language lulls us into believing that this common language also confers a common culture and contextual understanding.
It most certainly does not.
Early conversations with my new colleagues led to a lot of confusing outcomes. We fell into the trap of thinking that because we all spoke English, we understood each other without the extra context we often give when communicating across language barriers.
A few months into my time there and I managed to get my hands on an out-of-print book (thanks eBay!), a Lonely Planet “Australian to English Phrasebook“. I would pull it out of my bag when I was at a client site and we were conference calling with the head office in New Zealand. Inevitably someone would pick it up or comment on it, and I would tell everyone not to worry, that I was going to do my best to translate between English and Kiwi. Funny as it was, it set the tone in the room that, at some points, translation is necessary even when you share a common language.
These days so many of the people that I work with split their time between clients in North America and/or Europe, and manufacturing in Southeast Asia or Eastern Europe. We hone our skills in communicating across these borders. But the lessons that we learn, and the skills that we use to communicate asymmetrically are as valuable back home as they are abroad.
I’ve been stuck on this one piece of advice lately. Whenever I get a meeting invite with no agenda, or a kickoff brief that’s light on the details, I have the same advice back to my team, and it is
Take a minute, think about what you need, and what our client needs, and what our suppliers need. Put an agenda together. Remember that we are not literally fighting fires (most of the time anyway), and that taking an hour or a half of a day to get organized will save countless hours of people chasing their tails when presented with incomplete information.