Nearly all the interviewees talked about how critical it is to corral their e-mails, text messages, voice mails, and other communications. Deciding when, where, and how to be accessible for work is an ongoing challenge, particularly for executives with families. Many of them cautioned against using communications technology to be in two places at once, insisting on the value of undivided attention. “When I’m at home, I really am at home,” said one. “I force myself to not check my e-mail, take calls, et cetera. I want to give my kids 100% of my attention. But this also works the other way around, because when I’m at work I really want to focus on work. I believe that mixing these spheres too much leads to confusion and mistakes.”
That last point is a common concern: Always being plugged in can erode performance. One leader observed that “certain cognitive processes happen when you step away from the frenetic responding to e-mails.” (The history of science, after all, is marked by insights that occurred not in the laboratory but while the scientist was engaged in a mundane task—or even asleep.) Another executive pointed out that 24-hour availability can actually hamper initiative in an organization: “If you have weak people who must ask your advice all the time, you feel important. But there is a difference between being truly important and just not letting anyone around you do anything without you.”
Strikingly, some people at the top are starting to use communications technology less often while they’re working. Several invoked the saying “You can’t raise a kid by phone”—and pointed out that it’s not the best way to manage a team, either. Often, if it’s logistically possible, you’re better off communicating in person. How do you know when that’s the case? One interviewee made an important distinction between broadcasting information and exchanging and analyzing ideas: “Speaking [on the phone] is easy, but careful, thoughtful listening becomes very challenging. For the most important conversations, I see a real trend moving back to face-to-face. When you’re evaluating multibillion-dollar deals…you have to build a bridge to the people.”
Deciding when, where, and how to be accessible for work is an ongoing challenge, particularly for executives with families.
When it comes to technology in the home, more than a third of the surveyed executives view it as an invader, and about a quarter see it as a liberator. (The rest are neutral or have mixed feelings.) Some of them resent the smartphone’s infringement on family time: “When your phone buzzes,” one ruefully noted, it’s difficult to “keep your eyes on that soccer field.” Others appreciate the flexibility that technology affords them: “I will probably leave here around 4 PM to wrangle my kids,” said one participant, “but I will be back and locked into my network and e-mails by 8 PM.” Another participant reported, “Sometimes my kids give me a hard time about being on my BlackBerry at the dinner table, but I tell them that my BlackBerry is what enables me to be home with them.”
Both camps—those who hate being plugged in and those who love it—acknowledged that executives must learn to manage communications technology wisely. Overall, they view it as a good servant but a bad master. Their advice in this area is quite consistent: Make yourself available but not too available to your team; be honest with yourself about how much you can multitask; build relationships and trust through face time; and keep your in-box under control.