Let’s Make a Date

By Malcolm Fleschner

With the proliferation of mobile technologies like cell phones, laptops, PDAs and Blackberries, the modern harried sales professional may feel like work is constantly encroaching on what little space remains for a personal life. Sometimes, in an effort to reduce stress and give their people some time away from the frantic work pace, sales managers will insist that employees get out of the office and have some fun together. This can mean something as simple as dining out together or as involved as a department-wide golf outing.

But as Jim Bird, president of the Atlanta-based www.worklifebalance.com, observes, the conversations at these non-work events will often revert to business matters, and what was supposed to be a relaxing getaway becomes yet another opportunity to worry about what needs to be done once everyone gets back to the office. Before you know it, your fun departure from the job has turned into a meeting. To keep this from happening, Bird says, it’s important to understand the critical difference between a date and a meeting.

“The date and the meeting each serve very important functions,” he says. “A meeting we define as action time. The key thing about a meeting is that major decision topics are discussed. No matter where you are, if you’re talking about whether someone got the proposal out for the Johnson Group or any other major decision topic, that’s a meeting. A date, on the other hand, is time spent where no major decision topics are discussed by any of the people involved.”

Bird says that his understanding of this critical difference arose from his own experience when he would frequently join his team members for lunch dates. At least that’s what he thought they were.

“People in my organization would ask me to go to lunch with them,” he says, “and I knew what they wanted. We worked in a high-intensity environment and they wanted to get out, get a little R&R, recharge and then come back to the office ready to go again. But I always would go with an agenda. They’d be talking about the kids, the ball game, whatever, and then when I thought it was the appropriate time, I’d say, ‘By the way, how did west coast sales look through midweek?’ The whole complexion of the lunch changed. They didn’t have a very good date for recharge time, I had a lousy meeting and ultimately they stopped asking me to go to lunch.”

Bird notes that this problem is quite common – sales managers frequently hold celebrations or events, whether to commemorate successes or as part of an organized incentive program, but then let participants spend the whole time talking about work. This is how dates become meetings, he says.“This distinction matters, and is extremely important for making sure that the incentive that you put out there, the celebration at the end of that long project, for example, in fact winds up relieving the tension as intended,” Bird explains. “Because if you spend the entire time talking about major decision topics, that is not a recharge, de-stress time. Before going, the manager needs to say, ‘This is going to be our time, and we’re not going to talk about any major decision topics.’ That way no one has to be on the edge of his or her seat, waiting for the decision ball to drop. Everyone can sit back and relax.

Bird recognizes that sometimes certain business topics can’t be avoided, particularly when a few associates head out to lunch in the middle of the workday. In those cases, he says, they should all agree to cover all the major decision topics before the food arrives. Once that first appetizer shows up, the conversation should shift immediately so that everyone can relax and enjoy this brief break in the action.

Bird is quick to note one additional dimension to the date/meeting distinction, however. Even during a “date,” some work-related topics are OK.“You can absolutely talk about how great you did, or honor the recent success a team member or the whole team has achieved,” he says. “That’s a celebration, a form of play time, and that’s what dates are all about. Play includes whatever it is that makes up that moment in time – your surroundings, the meal or each other, as well as celebration and pats on the back.”

For more information visit www.worklifebalance.com.