The time has come for us to address one of the biggest technology issues of the day: Is leaving a voicemail a waste of time?

More often than not, when I leave a voicemail message for someone, it is never listened to.

Instead the person calls me back (thankfully!) and says the same simple words, “I saw you called. What’s up?”

Frustrated me wants to say, “What’s up is that I left you a message and you should have listened to it before you called me back.”

Eliminating the Middle Step

But over the last few months, I have done the same thing to people who have left me voicemail messages. I just checked my iPhone. I have 11 voicemails that I haven’t listened to over the last month, and in all but one case – sorry, telephone solicitor – I have returned the calls without listening to the message.

My actions aren’t unique. I see and hear people do it all the time.

Here’s the thing: It’s just easier or quicker to call the person back since most of the time the next action after listening to a voicemail is that you are going to call the person back anyway. Just eliminate the middle step: the voicemail.

Technology’s Effect

Part of me wants to suggest that this trend highlights a growing need for us to connect with real, living, breathing, speaking human beings because we spend too much time staring at computer and cellphone screens, or typing messages.

Of course, the technological advancement that enables us not to listen to voicemails is the capturing of the incoming caller’s telephone number on iPhones and Droids regardless of whether you answer or not. So if you have called someone’s cellphone, they have your number and when you called.

Some corporate phone lines, especially VOIP lines, do the same thing – although my experience is that it’s not the norm yet.

From the perspective of business efficiency (imagine voicing 50 or 100 voicemail messages in a day), leaving voicemail messages seems like an inefficient, outdated practice.

By abandoning voicemail, we save time when we are making or receiving calls from people. No need to do something that no one will ever use. Right?

Different Rules for Email

Before we create a new rule, let’s look at this situation another way. What if the communication occurred over email? Who would reply to someone’s email without reading it first? No one.

By that logic then, we should listen to the voicemails before we return the call. Probably.

Still I doubt that people are going to go backward. One of the great lessons of technology is that once you move forward, there’s rarely a chance we go back to our old ways. Who’s still using an 8-track player, a Gameboy or an iPod regularly?

The real problem is that we can’t anticipate whether someone is a voicemail listener or a disregarder. If we get it wrong, we jeopardize the very communication we sought to establish by placing the call in the first place.

Potential Missed Opportunities

That’s the problem. I’d like to stop leaving voicemail messages, but I fear I might miss an opportunity.

For the time being, I guess I have to keep leaving them, knowing the vast majority of the people I am leaving for them will never listen to them.

How are you handling this situation?

Most business owners and operators typically take stock of their company’s financial at this point in the year, which for most serves as the fiscal halfway point.

For some owners the first week of July is one of two times they actually look at their numbers. Others dig deep into their numbers at this point, checking them against their forecasts and realities. They create their spreadsheets, charts and graphs. They pore over the data, looking for trends and warning signs. And they forecast their future actions.

Those details are important to the success of any business. Knowing the financials is a critical component of running any business.

Businesses have another metric that they should be watching as closely. Yet most avoid or overlook this important asset.

What about your employees? Are you taking stock of where they stand in your business?

Employees make or break a business. We can’t create goods and services without them. As our businesses grow larger, our employees become a growing face of our creation. Without them, there is no us.

I see and talk to owners who often have no real sense of their employees. They are no different than the technology, another cog in the company’s big operational machine.

These owners either aren’t looking at or have become too engrossed in their own work life to pay attention.

They don’t see the things I see at businesses all the time. They miss the employee who smirks at a colleague or customer. They don’t recognize an employee’s lack of attentiveness to little things like a piece of trash on the floor or a faulty light bulb. They don’t hear the negative talk occurring in the office or on the sales floor. They don’t know that the employees are arriving late or leaving early.

They don’t see these red flags because they don’t want to. After talking to hundreds of business owners, I know the reason they don’t look or see these issues. To see them means they have to deal with them. Many business owners are either unsure of how to or afraid to look more closely at their employees.

Better to hide their heads, they think. If I can’t see it, it cannot hurt me. Every little child will tell you that about the monster under the bed. Except the monster isn’t real.

Employees and their attitudes and interest in their workplace are real.

I can’t count the number of times a key employee has left a job suddenly and in talking to the owner a few days or weeks later, they admitted that they probably should have known. The signs were there. The employee used more sick time than usual, wasn’t demonstrating the same level of commitment or creativity as usual, or just seemed tired by the job duties.

Imagine the same business owner saying I didn’t look at my bank account for six months or a year because I didn’t know how to deal with it. Impossible.

Knowing the truth about your employees won’t just help you feel better about the company. It will fuel additional growth. Happy, engaged employees are more productive and more innovative.

I have been researching, coaching and training employers and employees on many workplace issues.

From those experiences I can offer some questions you may must ask yourself about your employees.

  1. Do your employees understand your company’s underlying mission and does it resonate with them?
  2. Are they taking care of themselves so they can perform their duties at work effectively?
  3. Are they taking on new challenges and being challenged in their work on a daily basis?
  4. Do they see a path for promotion and advancement?
  5. Do they work and play well with each other? (Extra points if they can argue passionate with one another to reach a better solution to a challenge.)
  6. Do they share the good news and the bad news with the people that need to know, including you?
  7. Have your employees documented their processes and procedures so your business will continue to operate successfully if one of them chooses to leave?
  8. Could your employees work effectively if you had to take an unplanned or extended leave?
  9. Do they feel rewarded beyond their compensation and benefits for their hard work?
  10. If they could choose where to work, would they choose to work at your company?

If you cannot say “Yes” to all 10 of these questions, then you may want to invest as much, if not more effort, on your employees as you put toward the financials.

Study after study supports the notion that employees want to work in an environment where they can contribute and feel valued for that contribution.

The changes you may need to consider for them to feel like valuable contributors don’t have to be expensive or time-consuming. Most of these areas require more thought and action than money.

The payoffs can be enormous. The financials you may be reviewing closely this week could look far greater in a few months with action to better reflect your commitment to your employees.

People who appear to hold a strong ethical line gain more trust and respect than those who have less clear ethical boundaries. For this reason alone, maintaining strong personal ethics becomes a key to successfully working with others.

People who cannot determine the difference between good and evil or right and wrong human actions are not the people we gravitate toward. Those people can be unpredictable, if not downright dangerous. On some level we know it and tend to instinctively steer away from them as much as possible. Imagine the effect of this steering away in a team environment.

In concept and discussion, ethics seem black and white. The list of things we will and won’t do is easy to create in the abstract. In reality, the difference between black and white is colored with a great deal of gray.

Further complicating these ethically challenging situations is how no signpost alert us to when we are about to cross the line. It’s not like the Mason-Dixon Line, which seems to be clearly noted on practically every north-south route between Maryland and Pennsylvania.

As a journalist, I can remember pontificating in college classes on the “obvious” ethical choice in a series of complex journalism situations. Information can’t be verified (don’t use it). Lying about who you are or what you are writing about to get access to information or people (don’t do it). Paying for information (don’t do it).

Those situations arose in my career as a reporter, editor and executive editor more than I would have imagined. Other ethical lines that seemed easy to cross because they became less clear involved using anonymous sources in important stories where no other options existed and allowing advertisers to have a greater say in our coverage decisions than best practices might suggest.

In the real world, too many times we made ethical decisions on the fly, unaware that we even were right up against the ethical line or crossing it until it was too late.

Once you cross the line, it’s hard to walk things back (a beautiful political phrase that says exactly what we want to do but struggle to accomplish).

If a line clearly defines good versus evil, then once you cross it, you can never restore your good. Right?

The drivers pushing us toward that line may be the powerful appeal of a promotion, a new opportunity or a bigger role in decision-making, not to mention a bigger paycheck. These reasons are often cited when someone moves a personal ethical line closer to evil.

For me, more often than not, I didn’t even see the line I was close to crossing. It seemed to happen long before I realize what was happening.

Once alerted to the situation, I experienced something akin to buyer’s remorse. You know the feeling: You bought that two-for-one thing that shows up on TV for $19.99 every time you stay up late. It looks cool. It’s just $19.99, plus separate shipping for each. Who wouldn’t do it? You do it and when it arrives, you immediately see the bad decision you made.

Crossing an ethical line, wide or narrow, feels the same way, but the repercussion can far exceed the hit to your checking account for that cool late-night offer.

The only answer after bad decisions on both an ethical dilemma and a foolish online purchase is to attempt to recalibrate. These questions can offer some guidance.

  • What was the ethical line you crossed?
  • Did you cross it, or was your prior understanding of the line faulty? (It happens.)
  • What was the first and subsequent actions that led to crossing the line?
  • If you didn’t see it coming, what are the signposts you can erect to ensure it doesn’t happen again?

Determining where and when the ethics actually became compromised can help to ensure that if the situation arises again (it rarely does), we might make a different choice.

No wonder we assign so much trust and respect to the people who seem to avoid stepping over the ethical line. My guess is that at our core, we wonder how they do it and we hope it rubs off on us.

Want more on ethical decisions? Listen to Episode 49 of our Serious Soft Skills Podcast, which explores in more detail the ethical implications of decisions.

Most meetings don’t matter. While you may dismiss this reality as “part of the job,” think about how 15% of your work time, according to consulting firm Bain & Co, is spent in those time-sucking meeting. Change needs to occur and I have an idea.

But first, we need to be clear about how bad the problem is. For most of the meetings you are called into, being there is no different than being absent, except for the fact that less air and carbon dioxide gets exchanged, fewer eyes get rolled and your doodling of that cool logo you would use if you ever get up the courage to open your own business remains in your mind, not on the notepad sitting blank in front of you.

If you are like most of us, you know as you walk into a meeting – often 3 minutes or so late because the coffee maker wouldn’t work or it took you that long to talk yourself into going because “I have to” —  that you’re about to waste valuable time. It’s time you could be fighting fires (do firefighters have meetings?) or planning or the list could go on and on.

Meetings as Punishment

One person I know scheduled weekly staff meetings (the worst of the worst) for 4 p.m. routinely, figuring that if he was going to waste an hour that the best one to waste was the last one of his work day.

Another person I know attends a Friday afternoon meeting every week, even his vacation weeks, because it’s required. Talk about punitive and counter-productive. No one’s going to bring their A game to a Friday afternoon meeting, where every debate means that much longer until the weekend.

Holding a good meeting these days is challenging. Getting the right time, the right people, the right agenda, the right tone to encourage an open exchange, and on and on. I have coached leaders and teams on these matters.

A New Approach

A few weeks ago, I shared my strategy for creating better meetings on our award-seeking podcast, The Serious Soft Skills Podcast. Compressing meetings to the bare essentials seems to encourage the most effectiveness. I’ve tried stand-up meetings, fewer meetings with longer agendas, more meetings with shorter agendas and various other techniques.

But the Rule of Fours seems to work best. My Rule of Fours suggests that whatever time you are going to devote to meetings, cut it by four. If it’s slated for one hour, then cut it to 15 minutes. If it’s a half hour, then cut it to 7½ minutes. (If it’s a 15-minute meeting, scrap it. Do one-on-one, in-person meetings instead.)

This rule, which I have shared with a few people to good results, works for several reasons. Most importantly, the Rule of Fours shows you mean business. You want to get to the core of the matters at hand. No chit chat, no long stories, no bad jokes, no grandstanding, no crazy PowerPoint presentations. This approach doesn’t even allow for time to dim the lights, which is a guarantee for a bad meeting.

Taming the Meeting Madness

Second, this rule forces you focus on one, maybe two, main topics. Too often, with the exception of a brainstorming meeting where wild ideas are encouraged, teams take on too much in one meeting. It’s all issues on the deck, when focused meetings show success.

Third, if people have booked the hour for a meeting and get out after 15 minutes, they actually might have time to work on their action items from the meeting. Too often we leave meetings frustrated and after planned, which forces us to consign any action items we had at the meeting to later. If we even document them at all.

In our hyper-competitive business climate, wasted time costs us dearly. Making meetings matter again could help you regain the advantage you are seeking against your competitors.

Employers still have it all wrong when they hire. They focus too much on job applicants’ technical expertise and not enough on their soft skills.

Using this age-old approach to find the best employees and a good “cultural fit” is like throwing darts against a wall blindfolded and expecting to hit the target. Once in a while you will hit it, but most of the time you won’t. And you sure won’t be able to replicate any success you have.

Exactly 62% of business leaders consider experience and technical skills the drivers for their hiring decisions, according to a Forbes.com report on a Robert Half global survey.

Most employers know better

Oddly, 87% of those leaders acknowledged that they know that their most successful hires came about when they used time in the hiring process to evaluate cultural fit, which they said included values, belief and outlook.

Yet we continue to hire the same way we have for more than 100 years, when Henry Ford was making Model T’s and most jobs involved operating machinery. Today’s jobs are far different. In fact, 20% of jobs, mostly involving technology, didn’t even exist in 1980, according to the U.S. government. Most jobs involve working with people, the focus of soft skills, not machines.

Making poor or uninformed hiring decisions costs employers dearly, with replacement costs at up to 150% of the annual salary per hiring, according to some estimates. Add in the unbudgeted costs of a bad hire, including lost productivity, flagging morale among coworkers and potential departures among other key employees. Most good employees who leave a company don’t bolt over salary concerns, but rather because of issues with other employees or bosses. In other words, they depart because the culture no longer fits.

Moving past “laziness”

These factors make the need to address the hiring process in new ways quite clear. Still, we cling to the old ways. Where did you work, who were your “customers,” how many people making how many widgets did you oversee? Answers to most of these questions are easily pulled from a resume, a LinkedIn profile and references. Dr. Tobin Porterfield, co-founder of Serious Soft Skills and my co-author for The 55 Soft Skills That Guide Employee and Organizational Success, attributes this disconnect to employer “laziness.” Anyone who has been on a job search committee knows that assessing technical expertise is easier and safer; you can assess it.

Admittedly, soft skills are harder to assess. Our research uncovered a total of 55 soft skills that employees and organizations use to achieve results at work. They range from listening, patience and empathy to teamwork, leadership and adapting to change. Deciding which ones give one applicant a leg up over another can be challenging, although we have a system that helps companies overcome this challenge.

Bringing new tools to the office

The payoff for beating this challenge can be huge. Imagine having 55 tools at your disposal to deal with the increased globalization, greater reliance on technology and incredible cultural differences (including generational differences) occurring in the workplace today.

The hiring process must shift its focus toward these 55 soft skills. Employers should do a check-box review of resumes and other materials making sure applicants meet minimum requirements. College degree, appropriate major, years of experience, necessary licenses and certifications must be vetted.

From there, the hiring process must change. Employers need to craft better job announcements, focusing more of their request on people’s soft skills. A simple shift from seeking “communications experience” to “demonstrated communication experience” could enhance the hiring process.

Sports teams focus on soft skills

Initiating the hiring process with a focus on a team or company’s existing soft skills portfolio, the skills each member brings to the table, would invite new discoveries. Imagine hiring to enhance a team’s soft skills portfolio through a strategic evaluation of that team’s strengths and areas of challenge.

Sports teams don’t win because every player does the same thing. They win because owners and coaches put a collection of players, each with their own strengths, in situations that play to that player’s strengths. Relief pitchers in baseball must demonstrate perseverance and a positive attitude, two soft skills, for they are certain to give up a lead and lose from time to time. Baseball managers choose players for this important role of closer as much for their soft skills as their ability to throw strikes.

Focusing more attention on soft skills in the hiring and employee-development process is the game-changer most employers are seeking. If companies are going to become more productive, collaborative and innovative in this hyper-competitive, fast-changing business climate, they will need to embrace soft skills more. And in the short term, those companies that do embrace soft skills more will have a huge advantage over their competitors.