By Randall P. White, PhD., and Katie R. White

Sure, trainers have always had to make tough calls, but these days that means something a little different. Once mostly a face-to-face practice, executive coaches and facilitators are increasingly offering their wisdom via teleconference.

The sun never sets on executive education. As coaches and facilitators, we are global actors, as likely to be in Bangalore as Bakersfield. There are many enticing destinations, but it’s hardly Her Majesty’s Secret Service. A lot of what pays the expense account happens in our underwear on the dreaded teleconference.

It didn’t take rising fuel costs and time zones to make conference calls vital in the training world. Some functions of our work actually work better with a little distance and formality, not to mention the mute button. For example, the physical boundaries of a phone conversation can support presenting difficult feedback, by keeping the conversation on a more rigid schedule and by providing a medium that forces us to be precise in our conversation, because there’s no body language.

Teleconferencing is the forum of choice for pre-intervention planning with clients, coach team briefings, and client debriefings. And, as mentioned, giving feedback, although in those situations it’s likely to be a smaller teleconference, such as the learner and his/her boss.

Today, as travel budgets are more scrutinized than a few years ago, we definitely foresee more work by telephone.

How do training teams and clients make teleconferences more effective, efficient, and a little less dreadful? We’ve rooted out the bête noirs of huddling around a speaker phone and itemized this list of remedies:

1. At the start of the call, each person should sign in by saying, “Hello, it’s (your name).” We’ve been as guilty as anyone of starting a conversation with the host and then others can’t report in. While we are all friendly people, signing in and being quiet is the easiest and most efficient way to get the call started. Likewise, if the call is among people who may not recognize each other by voice, announce your name each time before making a comment. It’s a little more work, but at least you don’t have to wear “Hello, My Name Is” tags.

2. When the call has been particularly difficult to schedule, the host should acknowledge that and thank people for the time they are using. A sub theme here is to remember that in a global 24/7 world some people will be on the call late at night or early in the morning their time, and that is truly a sacrifice. If you’d like to see how it feels, schedule the conference call during their waking hours!

3. After the first five minutes (or when a quorum is reached), the host should review the list of people on the call and then give an overview of the call’s agenda, including order of items to be covered and time limit for each.

4. When you join the call late, be mindful that the call started without you. Don’t interrupt the flow of conversation! Wait for a clear break before announcing that you’ve joined the call. If people have been waiting for you to join, you will know immediately because the host will typically ask, “Is that you, Sally?” Then you can acknowledge your presence. Only apologize for being late if you have a significant role on the call, such as a discussion item that you had raised; otherwise, assume we accept your apology because everyone has the potential to get hung up (pun intended).

5. If you have to leave the call early, let the host know by IM/e-mail or at the start of the call when the host takes roll. Again, no lengthy explanations are necessary unless the call is somehow built around your agenda.

6. Be quiet!
When you are not speaking, make sure the mute button is on. We are all on the go, and conference calls do not always get scheduled at the most convenient times. Ambient noise (from airport, auto, children, on the street) can impede others’ ability to hear. Be mindful also that mute buttons don’t always work, a la our favorite office products commercial.

7. Remember, this is not a social call and, when you consider the time investment of everyone participating, likely not an inexpensive one. Keep your comments succinct, to the point, and on the topic. Here’s where the benefit of a remote meeting comes in for coaching and training, which is always enhanced by carefully chosen dialogue supported by careful and active listening.

8. When the conference call is office to office—i.e., a large group on one end (face-to-face) and a smaller group on the other—we have known the groups to have a flag on the table for putting up people’s pictures. This can remind participants that these are real colleagues on the other end of the wire, and it’s OK to do some relationship building while still being task-focused.

9. Like any good meeting, toward the end of the call—say the last five minutes—the host or someone else should summarize the agreements reached, actions taken, next steps required—or, in coaching parlance, an action plan. If this is a routinized call, then people will agree to meet again at the appointed time. If not, a simple “thanks for your time” (see #2) will suffice.

10. Trainer, train yourself! Mute when necessary, take notes, be an active listener, encourage quieter participants to make a contribution, and realize that this call is as important as if you had all gotten on a plane and flown to one place to meet face-to-face, but a lot less expensive and time-consuming. (If it isn’t that important, you ought to be asking if you need to have the call.) Gosh, it’s 5:00 pm in Prague and noon in Boston—time for our next conference call.

Katie White, principal, Franklin & White, started at the Center for Creative Leadership in 1973 as executive secretary to Visiting Fellows Donald MacKinnon and David Campbell. By 1981 she was the Center’s first female vice president. In her tenure she managed a variety of administrative functions, including marketing, registrations, test processing, telecommunications, and publication sales. In her last position at CCL, she managed a staff of 28 handling program registrations and all test processing. She is a graduate of Guilford College, Greensboro, NC. Randall P. White, PhD, principal, Executive Development Group, is the author of both popular and academic books and articles, including the recent release of his book with Phil Hodgson, “Relax, It’s Only Uncertainty (2001, Financial Times Pearson Education).” He is an adjunct professor at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University, has an adjunct association with Duke Corporate Education, and teaches at the Johnson Graduate School, Cornell University.

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