Staring at cellphones

I recently heard a story from Annie Kadavy at Charles River Ventures who talked a bit about what it was like for entrepreneurs to pitch the early-stage VC firm. At CRV’s partner meetings no one (no matter how uninspiring the startup’s pitch) is allowed to look at their cellphones. The team keeps each other accountable with a monetary fine measured in the thousands of dollars – no joke. If you’re caught on your phone during a meeting, dinner (and a likely expensive wine pairing) for the entire team is on your dime.

CRV’s policy is in place out of respect for the entrepreneur. I like the quirky policy, even if most CRV partners can afford the hefty fine without losing any sleep (the firm has invested in Twitter, Yammer, and Zendesk after all). It says something about who these people are, or at least the image and brand they hope to convey.

While the information on our iPhones may sometimes be more important, or urgent, or interesting than the meeting we’re attending, there’s very little in the modern business world more annoying, disrespectful even, than someone who is checked out on their phone while you’re speaking during a meeting. And I am absolutely guilty myself. The defense mechanism / rationalization is “I’m multi-tasking, I’m doing more, getting more done,” but are we really?

It’s not just the lack of respect, it’s the lack of efficiency as well. My active listening takes a big hit when I’m all thumbs, replying to an email on my mobile device, while trying to pay attention to those in the room around me. And the email response I’ve hastily crafted is worse as well, because it doesn’t have my full attention either. We’ve all missed the punchline to an (allegedly) hilarious joke told in real life, while straining our necks staring into the phones on our laps.

I live much of my life with the goal of being proactive, not reactive, so responding to that urgent email (even from your boss) or text (even from your spouse) can surely wait an additional 15, 30 or 45 minutes until the meeting is over.

So I’m going to do my best and take a page out of CRV’s playbook. Check the phone at the door when it comes to meetings (and maybe family dinners too). I’ll still incessantly doodle away on my notepad and get some funny looks in the process during meetings, but I’ll be eating my turkey without a side of Gmail or Twitter this Thanksgiving.