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The art of operations

by Colleen Killen-Roberts

Divisional Vice President of Entrepreneurship

Reconnecting: The power of in person

Connection with others has always been a priority for me. All of the isolation caused by the pandemic has wreaked havoc on my personal relationships, which was a sad outcome of COVID for me. On the professional side, one of the reasons I enjoy my job so much is interacting with our strategic partners, most of whom I haven’t seen in person in a while. And as COVID guidelines relax, one of the things I plan to do is to get on a plane and make up for lost time.

Granted, we’ve learned that we can successfully work from home and conduct virtual programs. Yet that doesn’t mean that we should stop in-person meetings — or underappreciate them. I, for one, miss the pre-COVID days when you could benefit from the energy exchange of a good face-to-face conversation.

Emails, conference calls and virtual meetings are efficient ways to exchange information, but their effectiveness is limited when it comes to building relationships. You can’t read tone of voice in an email, which makes it easy to misinterpret something that’s been written. You can’t see someone’s facial expression or body language in a phone call. And it’s all too easy to get distracted during a Zoom call as notifications float across your computer screen — or, in my case, when my naughty dog sees a squirrel out the window and starts howling. Yikes!

Obviously, not all information can be exchanged face-to-face. It’s important to create regular touchpoints via different platforms. There’s more than one right answer to this cadence because each partner relationship is different. Yet in-person meetings provide the real glue to bonding with others — plus they are a lot more fun.

In-person meetings are especially important if you want to be a full-solution partner as opposed to being just another vendor. If a partner already has established a vision for an event or program and you didn’t have any input, you can offer “transactional” help. Yet if you’re on the front end, sitting in the room while your partners are developing an initiative, program or event, you can co-create with them and become an extension of their team.

Our friend in Louisiana John Matthews taught me that. Before his retirement as senior director of Louisiana Economic Development (LED) Small Business Services, John brought his team member Chris Cassagne to Big Rock Valley, the foundation’s headquarters in southwest Michigan. Together we brainstormed at a very granular level about how we could build stronger programming for second-stagers in Louisiana. We listened to what John’s team needed, what the external influences were on them in terms of political pressures, what they were tasked with to accomplish and what success looks like for them. As a result of this in-person session, we were able to co-create programming that has won international recognition.

To recap, when it comes to connecting with partners, today’s technology gives us many options to consider. Yet the mere fact that we can meet virtually shouldn’t mean we always should. Zoom is great, but without regular in-person time, the connection will erode over time. To be sustainable, the relationship needs to be supplemented with face-to-face time.

Humans are social animals, and we’re meant to be together. When we’re not, those bonds simply aren’t as strong. That’s why my car’s odometer and my frequent-flier miles are going to see some serious upticks this year.

(Published March 7, 2022)