Trading had a love-hate relationship with the Finance Department because their support was required on all deals over a modest threshold of risk, capital, and volatility. The two departments had separate managers, roles, and compensation plans. Trading’s role was to initiate and manage the business of energy operations. Finance’s role was to provide Trading with advice, oversight, and independent valuations. We needed each other but sometimes, tensions arose. Trading viewed Finance as obstructing good deals while Finance viewed Trading as deal junkies who did not understand the financial risks within negotiated contracts. In truth, we needed each other to create a successful business.
I worked in London with Peter, a highly competent, likeable financial manager. We previously worked together in Houston and The Hague. He was authentic British but had lived in the US and understood American culture. I valued his counsel, and we had a solid working relationship based on mutual trust.
During my first year in London, my management team expressed their frustration with Finance’s slow response to their deals during the approval process. This topic was eventually brought to an Executive Leadership Team meeting as an issue. Deals remained in the approval process too long, which wasted resources and reduced profits. Nobody wanted to openly state that Finance was the main culprit because they feared retaliation. Something needed to be tactfully done.
I spoke with my manager to see if he would speak with Peter since he knew that financial approval was the prime issue. Peter was my peer and I believed it was better that a Brit spoke to a Brit. My boss did speak with Peter, yet little changed. My team spoke with me about a particular unapproved deal waiting for Peter’s signature. Out of frustration, I walked down to Peter’s office and discussed the deal with him. He asked good questions which I answered. It was a good discussion and Peter quickly approved it.
A few weeks later, I was told that Peter was again slow in approving a deal, so I repeated the same process. Peter and I had a good discussion, and he quickly approved the deal. It suddenly dawned on me that Peter wanted Trading to personally speak with him and debate the deal. My assumption was that if after reading the deal approval documents, Peter would seek out the appropriate people to answer his questions. This was my modus operandi. However, the reverse was true. Peter wanted Trading to come to him. Once I understood this unspoken process, I quickly informed my team and they always set up a review meeting with Peter when they required his approval. The deal approval speed greatly increased and the complaints decreased.
I learned a new word this week: desk-bombing. This is the act of approaching someone at their desk without warning and talking to them. When I learned of this word, I was incredulous. Why is approaching someone not just normal, daily work relations? I worked on an open trade floor where people sat in rows of small workstations. Impromptu conversations happened all day! I must be dated since personal interactions seem to be declining to the point that words like desk-bombing are invented. Social media and working-from-home have replaced face-to-face physical dialogue. My experience was that walking around the trade floor and grabbing someone for a quick conversation was routine and enjoyable, not terrifying. Desk-bombing is relationship building, not destructive.
I will admit that I phone people less often. I prefer text or email as it allows people to respond at their leisure. Instead of just picking up the phone and calling someone, I usually set up a convenient time before making the call. I have since learned that many younger people are fearful of phone calls because they have lost the ability to have a free-flowing conversation. Texting and emailing allow a person to collect their thoughts before replying. It removes a person from a physical dialogue.
I recently sat at a cafeteria table of a small liberal-arts institution last week doing emails. A female student was sitting alone at the next table. A male student walked by her and said that it had been several months since they last spoke. He asked if he could sit with her, and she replied positively. I listened to the conversation to see how they interacted. Instead of good-natured banter about class, other students, or life in general, the conversation was stilted and awkward. It wasn’t adversarial nor unfriendly. Both just seemed uncomfortable speaking. Within a few minutes, they pulled out their phones and stopped conversing. What’s the use of a liberal arts education if you can’t converse effectively in different social settings?
Phones and computers are recent developments. Before the Industrial Revolution, few people were literate. Jesus Christ taught verbally: one-to-one, in small groups, and preaching to crowds. The Apostle Paul wrote inspired letters, but it was his personal encounters with people that planted early Christian churches.
I learned that Peter, my financial friend, required personal conversation before action was taken. Looking back, I should have approached him personally earlier. Effectiveness is relational, not just transactional. There are many ways to communicate, but physical communication is still needed and so very important. It just takes practice. The best way to start is by doing, with the understanding that it may take time to become effective. The rewards far outweigh the risks.