By James Kwak
People occasionally ask me what it takes to succeed in the business world (since they assume at least that I know some successful people). Luck probably belongs at the top of that list. But I have a very clear idea of the most valuable skill to have in business (in part because I don’t really have it): the ability to pick up the phone, call someone, and convince her to do something that is in your interests—even though she has no other reason to do it.
I’m not saying this should be the most valuable skill in business. People like me would prefer it if all decisions were made on the basis of factual evidence and logical reasoning. But they’re not. And the people whom I have seen become very successful are the ones who are hard to say “no” to, whether in person or on the phone. How they do it can vary: some do it with charisma, some with logic, some with sheer stubbornness. But they can all do it.
I thought of this when reading a recent WSJ article about how some businesses are trying to encourage their employees to use the phone instead of email. People claim they use email (or text messaging) because it’s more efficient, but that’s only true for some types of communications, particularly distributing information to many people that doesn’t require any type of interaction. For a simple example, if you have a question for one person, and the answer is complicated enough that you might need to ask more clarifying questions, the phone is far more efficient than email or text. Then there’s the relationship aspect. If I’m at the grocery store and my wife wants to add something to the list, she sends me a text, since she doesn’t feel the need to build on our relationship. But in business, when you’re dealing with people you don’t know, there’s no substitute for the phone.
The real reason why people avoid the phone in business contexts is that they’re uncomfortable. They don’t know the other person, they’re nervous about that, and it’s so much easier to send the email. But that’s precisely the problem. It’s so much easier to say “no” to someone by email, too. (Social media messages are even easier: I have no qualms about simply ignoring unsolicited direct messages in Twitter, Facebook, or what have you.) So if you’re new to the corporate world, your boss tells you to ask a supplier for a lower price, you send the email, you get the rejection, and you feel like you’ve done your job. But you haven’t done it very well.
This is all very simple and obvious, but it runs up against most people’s deep-seated feelings of insecurity and awkwardness. I don’t have a solution for that. But if you want to be CEO of a big company someday, get used to it.