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The Female CEO ca. 2002
by Margaret Heffernan

What is it about the British? Despite being more wired than the United States, we still don't get it. We still don't have the habit of answering emails, voicemails, all the other mails we get every day. We have, instead, what my mother and every mother before her would castigate as appallingly bad manners. Which you could dismiss as just the typical casualness of our age. Except that it is so obviously bad for business.

Much of my time is spent writing and researching books and articles about the way business is done, both here and in the States. I like to think that I am thorough but I'm not academic. My audience isn't students and what expertise I have derives from hands-on experience, not scholarly research. But I need and use academic research all the time. When I need to know something, I find out who the world expert is and I write to them. And here's the thing: if they're in the US, they write back – and they’re helpful. If they're in the UK, all I get is silence.

I used to think that this was just an academic quirk. Being more reliant on grants and public persona, I thought, American academics are more used to marketing themselves and their work. But then I started researching particular companies for a new book. Every single UK business I emailed failed to respond. So I found their phone numbers and press or PR offices and tried again. Same result: nothing.

Then I started to notice the same pattern as a customer. I’d research a product I needed, find it online, feel pretty convinced I wanted it – and email for details. Silence again . I was on the other end of a computer, prepared to spend (sometimes) hundreds of pounds if I could just get one final specification. But nothing came. All those websites – but no one on the other end of them. Sure, I could phone – but most of my personal work gets done outside of retail hours. That’s one of the many things the web is so good for. Or would be if the final part of the chain weren’t broken.

All business is relationships and all relationships are about communication. And every time we fail to communicate, what sociologists call our "social capital" is diminished. The word capital isn't an accident: in business, social capital translates directly to financial capital. It is, literally, money in the bank. And it can compound – if you are prepared to invest it in people, in time. Like all capital, social capital requires attention to deliver returns.

Entirely by dint of email, over the last few years, I've built tremendous relationships with people I now consider to be colleagues around the world. They have built my business and I have helped them to build theirs. I've found them clients and they've found me customers. Our relationship isn't juvenile chit chat; it's hard core business dealing with significant bottom line consequences.

So is it that there's simply too much email and we can't cope with all of it? It’s a nice excuse – but it doesn’t hold water. Because I’ve started to notice that it's always the busiest, most successful people who reply fastest. Does that tell you something? When I worked in television, I'll never forget being late for a meeting of the Edinburgh TV Festival Committee. As I breezed into the room, mumbling apologies, the then Controller of BBC 1 looked up and said quietly, "Yes, you must be very busy." It was the biggest, gentlest put-down I've ever experienced and it taught me a lot. Since that mortifying day, I've noticed a weird coincidence between the impeccably mannered - and the exquisitely successful. John Witney, founder of Capital Radio, manages a vast spectrum of business commitments with punctuality, punctiliousness and unfailing calm. Peter Chernin, the President of New Corporation, is a busier executive than most of us. But he always answers his email immediately -- and remembers your name after a single meeting.

I've learned a lot from working with such people. When I think I'm too busy or too stressed, I ask myself - am I as busy or overloaded as they are? Very rarely. They've taught me to improve my responsiveness and that, in turn, has shown me how profoundly punctiliousness pays off. Answering emails and letters. Remembering names. Being punctual. Writing thank you notes. Those good manners my mother taught me turn out to be essential business skills.

I can't quantify how much of my business derives from all those unknowns to whom I've replied over the years - but it's a lot. In fact, I don't think I could do what I do now without it. Which is why I always answer email from strangers - even the ones who turn out to be Real Business readers.

This article was originally published in Real Business magazine.

Copyright Margaret Heffernan. All Rights Reserved.

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