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Building personal relationships in business
THE man who was my mentor in business for some 20 years liked me. I liked him, too. We had a similar sense of humour and although he was cleverer than me, I challenged him creatively. We had disagreements, of course, and since he was my boss, he won rather more often than I did. But he did encourage me to win, too. I had another boss before him who was the complete opposite. I have no idea if he liked me; I know I got as near to hating him as I have any human being. Were my feelings for him fair? Obviously, I think so. Others might not.
Relationships cannot be wholly consistent
I cite these two examples because I know that the "bad" boss was a mentor to others. And the "good" boss wasn't appreciated by everyone. The personal relationships in both cases mattered tremendously. In fact, they determined the effectiveness of the two bosses in their jobs as mentors. Since all bosses are mentors and coaches at times this means that relationships are key to successful learning and teaching. In business, as in every aspect of life, personal relationships matter.
The obvious starting point is in customer relations. Business people think that if they butter up their customers adequately, they will get more orders and keep the business. In my early days in advertising it was thought that you had to entertain clients non-stop if you wanted to keep them. However, it doesn't always work this way. I recall the CEO of one of my clients ordered his employees not to be entertained at all by my agency. All transactions were, therefore, "at arm's length".
Good standards make good sense
Much as I disliked the idea, being, at the time, something of a bon viveur myself, I thought it made very good sense. Better than another client who asked that an expensive fur coat be delivered to his home for his wife if we wanted to keep the account. Corruption was normally fairly small scale in those days though I daresay there were cases of something bigger that I simply never got to hear of.
Today, there is still corruption but sensible companies take good care to avoid it as much as possible. In doing so, it is necessary to build relationships on business behaviour and objective understanding, to be more reliable and lasting than transactional bribes. The word we all seem to be shy of using is trust. This is the basis of personal relationships in business that matters so much. It is regarded as unreliable today since so few people are thought to be trustworthy. This conclusion is unfortunate, wrong and extremely costly for business.
The economics of trust
You do not need to have a PhD in Math to understand that lawyers' fees eat very quickly into commercial profits. A simple agreement, sealed with a handshake may possibly cost you a pint of beer. Turn it over to lawyers and your agreement will run to 260 pages and require revisions to eight drafts. If you then try to enforce it in a court of law it will bankrupt you, very likely. As businesses are slowly - oh, so slowly - learning, there is no cast-iron certainty in agreements, only cast-iron bills.
Small businesses understand this better than big ones. They know their staff, their suppliers and their customers more closely. They can pick up the phone and say 'What's this?' in a way a large firm can't. That is why, when building my businesses, I tried to keep units as profit centres, small and self-contained. The relationships were personal. Trust between the members was a prerequisite if they were to be trusted anywhere else.
How is that trust built and maintained?
Firstly, by making honesty and truth in your dealings with someone the watchword of your behaviour. To be able to believe another human being is a wonderful experience. It is, sadly, rarer today than it has been for some time. It seems to be getting rarer still.
Secondly, by demonstrating care to get things right. It is difficult to judge Boeing without knowing all the facts. From what has come to light the care, which I would have thought was a prerequisite above all others in aircraft manufacture, seems to have been missing from the company. If this is correct, blame personal relationships right through the business. But blame the boss most of all. Care starts at the top.
Thirdly, by letting people make mistakes, own up to them and keep their jobs and the boss's confidence. If the criterion for staying employed is perfection, abandon the business. There are no perfect people to be had.
Fourthly, by a healthy development of personal relationships extending, when possible, beyond the purely commercial transactions necessary to do business. I remember reading about a study that showed that accidents on building sites were significantly reduced when the workers had some social time together outside work. Knowing each other better made them more careful. It sounds reasonable anyway.
The heart of every relationship
At the heart of every relationship is something to be gained. That doesn't make them exclusively transactional. After all, marriage is a state where both parties expect to gain something and become disappointed when they don't. The difference between successful and unsuccessful relationships is when each party is thinking of the other as much as of themselves.
Get your relationships right in a business and successful business will follow. Like beautiful gardens, good relationships must be well tended.
When they are, a business blossoms.
- John Bittleston is founder and chair, Terrific Mentors International