Why Make Time for Relationships?

Businesspeople often make the mistake of first thinking about relationships when they have real need.  That might be when an offer is on the negotiating table, when you’re facing resistance from other people, teams or divisions over a project, or even when you need better career opportunities.

Why is this a serious mistake?  When career, money, resources, or even project buy-in are at stake, it’s liable to be much more difficult to build trust and share information at the time of need–much less access the power or support you need.

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One of my client firms has had great success in building a business over the past 20 years by focusing on the development of long-term relationships.  Contrary to many professional-service firms, they’re quite willing to share their expertise while the meter is off, providing insight, suggestions and occasionally project goodies.  They’re also assertive in their quest to talk to potential customers long before a project is in sight.  In that process of building relationships, they learn as much as possible about that client’s contacts, about his/her needs, “anxieties,” values and interests.  They’ve also found that “no strings attached” can pay off in huge dividends.

Furthermore, when a project is in the offing, they usually know about it long before the competition and have a leg up on the proposal and contracting process.  In fact, sometimes they’re able to bypass the auction and “dog and pony” shows completely.  They’ve built a lot of relational power into the situation.

What’s true for smart organizations is also true for your career.  It’s very important to set aside time every week just to build strategic relationships, especially with those whose cooperation or compliance you’ll need.  Just as importantly you’ll want relationships with those whose opposition could sabotage your objectives, as well as those who’ll need your cooperation or compliance to achieve an objective.  I dealt with these matters in a pevious blog–Who should be in my network?–that you’ll find here.

In a cool piece of research, Ballinger and Rockman found that so-called “anchoring events” are much faster routes to understanding and building relationships.  An anchoring event is simply a situation where you find that a supervisor or organization is willing and able to go above and beyond where you expect them to go.  The authors suggest, for example, that the success of mentoring is less about gradual building of trust and relationships and more about rapid building of mutuality and high-quality information exchange.  They also point out that intense socialization programs in the military are critical “not just for the actual preparation (in both physical and task knowledge) but more for the extent to which they contain extreme events” that make for intense relationships and dependencies.

Years ago when I was working for Carl Wilson, at that time the CIO of Pillsbury, I told him that I was being inundated uncomfortable with technology information, and had no background in the field. He sent me off to a two-day workshop with leaders in technology, paying for both it and my time investment.  I never forgot that he was quite willing to go beyond my expectations of any client and have been able to capitalize on that relationship insight ever since.  What crosses my mind is the recognition that one colleague, manager or client just might be willing to go to jail for me, whereas another would cover his ass and quickly abandon me.  Those are “extreme instances,” but I don’t have to screw around very long trying to figure out what the relationships will be like if I need power, support or insight.  That knowledge is especially useful for understanding long-term relationships whether with colleagues or clients.  It sets my expectations.  I know what he/she will do or won’t do.  It’s exceptionally useful information in today’s world.

The citation is: Ballinger, Gary and Kevin Rockmann, Chutes Versus Ladders: Anchoring Events and a Punctuated-Equilibrium Perspective on Social Exchange relationships, Academy of Management Review, 2010, Vol. 35, No. 3, 373-391.

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