What would Bill Clinton do?

By Suzanne Bates, president and CEO of Bates Communications

I've never met Bill Clinton but many of my friends have, and all say the same thing about him. He's so ... in the moment.

When he shakes your hand he focuses on you like you're the most important person in the world. For that fleeting moment - 30 seconds or a minute - you believe you're his new BFF. Even if you're a Republican.

That got me wondering - what would Bill Clinton do if his cell phone rang while he was locked in a conversation with you? Would he pull the phone up and look, raise that right index finger, and say "just a sec"? Would he check to see if it was Chelsea? Hillary? ("Sorry, she's boarding a plane to the Middle East and I need to catch her.") Former presidents do have "people" who take care of the routine "incoming," but he must have a BlackBerry or an iPhone for personal use. What would he do?

How do you make people feel important when you're always trying to do two or three things at once? The other day I was wrapping up a call with my husband (delivery of furniture was late... etc. etc.) while on my way to meet colleagues in the towering lobby of a beautiful old Chicago hotel. It was so loud that I could barely hear him, he had more to say, but they were waiting, so I weakly mouthed "Sorry, just a second" to them - and then, "honey, I'm sorry, they're waiting," and felt bad about all of it.

Timing your calls is impossible. No matter how well you plan, communication events collide. You have two choices: end the call (like a jerk), or keep other people waiting (like a bigger jerk). For example, the other day in the airport I thought I had ten minutes to wait for my luggage. I returned a call to my friend Annie. The bags showed up two minutes later. I had to cut it short because my colleague had now been forced to snag the bag off the carousel and was rolling both his and mine toward the cab stand.

We feel justified when we are the ones who "have a conference call," need to "take the call" or "get back to the guy" right away. But when that shoe is on the proverbial other foot, when you're the one being sidelined, it's funny how we feel so ... well ... small.

And sometimes if we're honest it makes us a little angry.

Maybe not as angry as Glenn Close's character Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction ("You won't answer my calls, you change your number. I mean, I'm not going to be IGNORED Dan.") But it feels bad all the same, to be ... second choice.

The other day at the hair salon, the owner, to whom I am loyal because she wins Best of Boston every year for color, answered three calls and carried on lengthy conversations - while highlighting my hair. I mean, pretend I'm important for ten minutes before you charge me $145 dollars. The same day, I went to the manicurist who took two calls from her daughter. I don't suppose you can tell employees not to answer calls if you don't live by the same rules.

Bill Clinton became president before cell phones ruled our lives. I couldn't find any photos of him on a cell phone, even a current photo. However, he is famously in perpetual motion, with dozens of pet projects around the globe, so I have to believe that he's had to consider how to maintain his brand image without compromising connectivity.

In my own firm, the policy is no mobile device in front of the client. We take breaks and leave the area to return quick calls or answer e-mail. My feeling is that clients are paying us a lot of money and they prefer we not take care of other clients' business on their dime. However, this policy flies in the face of our other policy to be highly responsive.

Welcome to juggling in the age of Modern Mobile Mania.

Multi-tasking communication is a little like driving through the Grand Canyon and reading a good book. You're missing the scenery and you're also distracted from the story, unable to fully appreciate either. Multi-tasking is the opposite of a conversation with Bill Clinton: instead of being completely absorbed, you are vaguely distracted.

This is an interesting issue for any executive who wants to establish a brand as a connected, focused leader. You can't turn it on and off. Your behavior has to be consistent.

Many of my friends or clients have unspoken 24/7 cell phone policies - as in, you're expected to have the phone on at all times. You pick up or respond immediately to the CEO and other key people. What's not clear for all of my friends and clients is where the boundaries lie. While some CEOs never would suggest they want you to walk away from your kid's baseball game, others wouldn't ask where you are or what you are doing. That raises another issue - clarity of your policy on 24/7 connectivity. If you decide on connectivity at all costs, then the leaders who work for you are going to find themselves in conflict. They may have to interrupt their employee in the middle of a difficult conversation. They may have to duck out of a customer meeting. You may not mean to create that conflict, and they may not be using common sense, but it's going to happen.

Common sense has to rule, of course. A smart leader needs to figure out how to stay connected and also be in the moment with people. But the interruptions and overlaps in our movement from one communication event to the next are simply inevitable.

Again, I wonder, what would Bill Clinton do?

Maybe someone who knows Bill Clinton could ask him for me. I'd really like to know.

About the author:

Suzanne Bates is the founder, president, and CEO of Bates Communications. She is a former television anchor, a writer, speaker, and author of Speak Like a CEO and Motivate Like a CEO.

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