You still hear a lot about sharing best practices across categories and industries. There are consultants and firms that have built entire businesses in this area. For example, I often see aspects of a technology firm that apply to a consumer products company or a nonprofit, despite their seeming differences.
I recently had a very interesting conversation with a technology executive. He spends his entire day in meetings, walking between conference rooms or driving to his next appointment. He gets stopped in the hallways or gets messages through his Blackberry from his team to answer questions and make real-time decisions that keep their projects moving forward until he returns to his office after 5 p.m.
He eyeballs his e-mail throughout the day, multitasking in meetings, and checks voice mail during bio breaks, but he's virtually never in his office during "normal business hours" whatever that even means anymore. There's no "think time" to reflect and process information today, and we're being inundated with more data and information than ever before.
This scenario may sound all too familiar no matter what business you're in. So what's an entrepreneur to do? This technology executive decided to start holding office hours for three hours each week. You probably remember in college when your professor posted weekly blocks of time that she would be available, sitting at her desk with the door open; any student could stop by to ask questions, get advice or just say hello. I'm sure there were weeks when only a few hearty souls appeared, so the professor could do research or just read during the quiet time. But most weeks, especially the ones leading into exams, there was a line out the door of students with lists of questions.
The technology executive sent his division an e-mail to announce his new plan and he arrived at his office at the scheduled time on the designated day. To his delight and surprise, members of his team stopped by all afternoon. Some longtime employees were thrilled to know they were guaranteed to find him sitting at his desk. A recent MBA and new hire stopped by to say he had gotten the e-mail and thought it was a great idea. He wondered why more companies weren't doing it and was planning to ask his roommates if their firm did the same thing.
One person on his team stopped by and asked if the executive could recommend any good books to read. They got into a long discussion about a number of new business books and some old favorites. Three others from the team happened to pop in during the conversation, and everyone chimed in on the suggestions. A thought occurred to the executive: They should start a book club in the department. They could have several going at one time and people could join whichever one they preferred. One person would be responsible for writing up highlights and key lessons from the book to share with the entire team.
Before long, a few groups formed, one for recent New York Times non-fiction best sellers, another for classic business advice and a third for great fiction, because all work and no play gets old.
It's no surprise that many other division heads started holding office hours and creating book groups across the organization and some of their spouses' and roommates' companies followed. The book clubs crossed divisions leading to better communication across the organization. New relationships formed and old ones got renewed through common interests and regular communication.
When you have something other than the quarterly earnings to chat with Jack in finance about, it helps you find areas of mutual interest and understanding. That can only help when you do need to have a serious conversation. Oftentimes it really is the simple ideas that make a big difference. Creating white space on your calendar, opening the door and just being present can have a huge impact on your organization's communications and culture.
If office hours or book groups aren't your style, try a monthly happy hour or company-sponsored lunch to get people talking to each other the old fashioned way. Creating environments where people have time to ask questions, think about the decisions they're making, connect the dots in new and interesting ways, and just pause and reflect so they can listen to others and not just react can be incredibly powerful.
Best practices can be shared both internally with your team and externally with your customers as well. Think about why you and your business frequent the retailers, restaurants, car rental companies or hotels you choose. What are they doing to keep you coming back that you might be able to apply to your business? Do their employees seem happy, articulate and well-trained? Do they offer promotions, training, value-added opportunities or co-marketing with other businesses you admire?
Finding more ways to connect with your internal and external audiences only makes you more important to your key constituencies. We are all in the relationship business after all, so create a way to strengthen yours and the business will follow.
Paige Arnof-Fenn is the founder and CEO of Mavens & Moguls, a strategic-marketing consulting firm whose clients include Fortune 500 companies as well as early stage and emerging businesses.