The Best Career Advice I Ever Received, Hands-Down

The past few weeks we've been talking about scale and intimacy - how in some ways these ideas are polar opposites and in some ways they're intrinsically linked.

In today's world, scale runs our societies, lives, and workplaces. So to balance things out, I'd like to spend just one more article on the intimacy side of things: a continuation of last week when we discussed how to move forward when things have been blown out of proportion by scale. 

As with the most important things in life, this advice is simple. And yet, it is the single best piece of advice I have ever - and probably will ever - receive to help my career. Ready?

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"If you need to deliver a negative message, pick up the phone. Never email."

 

I told you: simple, right?

Yet, we rarely do it. And because it's simple but not easy, allow me to elaborate with a few questions that I ask myself as a litmus test when deciding: should I text, email, or <ugh> must I call?

 

1. Is my message bad news?

"Bad news" can be anything along the spectrum of serious to inconsequential. When I first received this advice in my underwriting days, serious meant denying a client or broker's request.

Conversely, an inconsequential example was when recently, a photographer was pitching me her services; we were meeting for coffee, and she was running five minutes late. She actually called me (not texted) to tell me her ETA. As small as it sounds, this gesture made me like her from the get-go, and I've since paid her hundreds of dollars for her services and referred her other clients. It indicated to me immediately, "I am going to like the way that she does business."

 

2. Could my message be perceived as bad news?

This one requires a pause and a calling on empathy (confession: not always my strength). Perhaps you need to talk to an employee, boss, or client about something he's done. You know that the thing he did, which adversely affected you or your business, isn't a big deal in the scheme of things. But if you email this feedback, and he reads it in a text or email when he happens to be having an off-day, it's likely to be unintentionally blown way out of proportion. Suddenly, what started as a bit of a lazy email turns into WWIII, and all this could've been easily prevented by simply picking up the phone.

 

3. Will it provoke 2+ back and forth exchanges?

If you're composing an email that you know (and you do know, don't say you don't) will create a back and forth exchange, pick up the phone. If you're posing a question that will beg three follow-up questions, and you send an email, here's what will happen: (a) you won't receive as in-depth responses as you need to check that task off your to-do list (b) there will be a delay in gathering the information or reaction you're looking for and (c) annoyance will mount between you and the receiver. What started off as a neutral request will turn negative, after all. 

 

And it goes without saying: if there is a truly serious message to deliver, face to face is worth it. 

 

I hope is that this is obvious, and you are reading and thinking, "This advice is table stakes. Please stop insulting my intelligence."

But similar to the difficult conversation dialogue, I'm shocked by the number of situations I've encountered lately where picking up the phone is not a common practice. I recently coached two people out of resigning by email. A friend told me that her employee just alerted her team that she'd no longer be leading them via Facebook. And I've received a few negative text messages in recent months that I've had to flat-out ignore, as I feel others trying to coax me into a negative texting war. 

 

In over a decade of full-time work, this advice has transformed my business results and more importantly, my relationships with other people - inside and outside the office. 

 

I'd love to hear: what's the best career advice you ever received? 

 

Photo from Antique Telephones