“It’s not personal, it’s business,” said Tom Hanks’ character in the movie: Who’s Got Mail. He was describing his philosophy in taking down (wrecking) his eventual love interest’s competing book business. I was reminded of this phrase when I realized all the calls I were receiving related to business and not to me personally. For those few men and women calling for professional reasons, I wasn’t four hundred miles away—I was just seven digits(or a text message) away. No, that’s not depressing at all…
In Seattle, there is a phenomenon dubbed “Seattle Freeze,” the experience of newcomers being frozen out of social circles and all manner of situations involving connecting and interacting with Seattle “natives.” Yeah, I know, but seriously, it’s a real thing – google it…
In the beginning—the first six months—I did reach out to those we “left behind.” As my mother advised: “Trust me,” she said, with all the wisdom a seventy-eight-year-old who has moved multiple times can bestow. “They look at you as the person who needs to make the effort.”
“But why?” I queried.
“You left them,” she answered simply. “Therefore, you must make the effort.”
“What? Me?” I thought to myself upon hearing mom’s words. I hadn’t left them, I’d moved. The friendship should remain intact.
For the next six months, I maintained this perspective, drank more hot chocolate and observed the tunnel to our personal lives a la Seattle fade to black. My entire professional network continued to call unabated. A silver lining then. Yet not one individual with whom I had personal relationship called me up “just to chat.”
Need versus Want
It took a few months to admit the obvious. “Out of sight, out of mind” was a cliché that deserves immortality. But the harsher truth this: many personal relationships are discretionary, and in a hyper-connected world, we’ve grown hesitant or downright lazy in our desire to put forth the effort to maintain relationships.
Yet, as the silence continued, I was forced to reflect on a simple truth. Convenient, fun lunch dates are nice to have’s, not must-have’s. Volunteering or filling a board position at the school are important, but also discretionary. The litany of other life-related activities and events all circle around short-term needs, mostly connected with family, school or community. While all these interactions require a relationship, they are ultimately temporary—for school’s change, organizations evolve, expanding, collapsing or even shutting down.
Contrast this the professional world, and the individuals therein. Most didn’t know I’d moved and had they known, wouldn’t have cared; the relationships as predictable and the end of a Disney movie. As I’ve often said, professionals never quit or go away, we just change positions and roles, and because of that truth, the back and forth, give and take and general “calling to check in” conversations never lagged.
The more I pondered the difference between personal and business relationships, the more I realized that my approach to business relationships had a long-term view from inception. It meant that from my first job in the “real world,” vis-à-vis an internship at a high-tech firm at nineteen, I knew I had to focus on building, extending, nurturing and maintaining relationships with all those I met, no matter what the job title or organization.
This investment and philosophy played out over the next decade. I saw first-hand how David Kirkpatrick went from being a reporter at Fortune Magazine to a writer, senior writer, then senior editor over the course of a ten-year period. During that decade, I switched companies three times, pitching him about multiple stories. We kept in touch, even after he left to co-found a technology conference. I have several dozen relationships with members of the media who have never left the industry, but moved from one organization to another, moving up in their roles and influence. Nurturing relationships had become a part of my business DNA.
“The love of family and the admiration of friends is much more important than wealth and privilege.” ~ Charles Kuralt
It’s not personal, it’s business.
In this context, the symbiotic relationship with a member of the media was built on stories and reporting (and still is). I’m a source for those individuals, my connections infinitely more valuable to the media than covering me personally.
The same holds true for the CEO who was once a vice president of sales and hired me to help increase revenue through partnerships. The short-term program delivered the expected results, and the next time I heard from him, he was an EVP with a storage firm. Once again, he hired me, our firm delivered, and the business relationship remained intact. After that, he became the CEO of a software firm, hired us for the third time, and when that company went public, he went quiet. He put his forty million in the bank and took a few years off, but continued to call me as he traveled, sat on boards and ultimately reemerged as a high-priced consultant. We still talk a few times a month, bouncing ideas off one another or offering introductions where necessary. But mostly, we have fun discussing all things non-business, the type of conversation you can have after knowing someone eighteen years who knows you, trusts you and relies upon your opinion.
Too often, when the relationship is of a personal nature, when the need is over, so is the relationship. Once I left the Seattle area, I looked back on previous moves—from San Francisco to Seattle, and prior to that, Portland down to San Francisco. In each case, the personal relationships were skin deep, fun and entertaining, enough to remember birthdays and celebrate special events, but not multidimensional enough to extend beyond a move. Yet nearly every business association is still intact, and by that, I mean emails, texts, phone calls and random postings on social media forums. Did it (and does it) lessen with the normal ebbs and flows of business, sure. But the door of communication continually swings both ways.
Keeping those Connections, the testament is counted in Years
So where does the word friendship come in to play, and the über-adjective of close friends? It wasn’t until leaving the city and moving to a relatively remote place that I realized many (most?) of my friends are those that started from a business connection and evolved to long-lasting friends who I cherish.
Notice I used the word connection? Connections, if I might digress, is an objective, antiseptic word and I dislike it. It signifies a singularly layered, one-dimensional status to describe my association with another person. And really, what does it mean? We’ve talked? Are we partners? Do we have a boss-employee association? Did we date in a former life?!
It could be any of the above, but ultimately, we “know” each other enough to be connected through social media. For if social media would have us believe anything, it’s that the number of connections are the ultimate indicator of one’s relative importance in life. Now, after living in the wild west for nearly two years, I’ve concluded that the most fulfilling relationships I have are those where the professional and personal aspects have united. I enjoy speaking the same “business language,” someone who can skip between technology, finance, deal creation and the media with ease and humorous stories. At the same time, I appreciate a person who has had (and can talk about) the ups and downs of life, failures and successes, kids or no, dogs, cats and crazy relatives—the things that dominate the bulk of our lives.
For the professional starting out, the philosophy should be: every connection should be more than a connection. It should be a productive, successful business relationship (née friendship) that you will maintain and nurture over the years and decades. It’s not easy to do. It takes work and integrity. The creators of LinkedIn figured this out when they created the business (social?) network linking one’s business connections. It’s also why the site has quite a bit of value, even after it was purchased by Microsoft. It’s the living testament to a person’s business dealings, reputation and successes.
Think of it this way. C-level executives, the press and even peer college graduates all have hobbies, personal interests, emotions and real-life drama. Over time, it’s nearly impossible not to glean bits and pieces of an individual’s life. Take this to heart. What starts as a business conversation at the conference room table can turn into discussing entrepreneurial ideas over tacos. Eventually, the friendship you have created (that started from a business discussion) could result in a new business venture, the result of a holistic relationship founded on trust and respect.
My Personal Mantras
What started out as a woes-me, pity-party-of-one two years ago, matured to a hurray, I have some seriously great friends pep talk. I have long-term, deep friendships that have stood the test of time and all the travails and highs that come with it. I felt a deep gratitude about the breadth and depth of my “network” of friends (not just connections) as I perused my LinkedIn (ironically). Considering my newly discovered state of appreciation, I reflected on other philosophies that have brought me to this point—surrounded by people who excel in business and with who I share a satisfying friendship.
What had I done to gain their trust? What were my techniques or philosophies? What would I tell others who are starting out or mid-way in their career? (The last question makes me sound so old, but since I was figuratively raised in the technology sector, I count my life in dog-years).
Seek to understand the priorities of the other person, their goals, missions, job milestones and other career-critical items. Make it your goal to gather bits of value and pass it on to that person, not all the time or in ways that annoy. But in a capacity that shows you listened, you care and you respond. Those credits add up in ways that can be used later. A million years ago, I cold-called a senior manager at Microsoft and asked what type of partners he required to help his product group. After being given the barest of details, I took the initiative to research and rank a few that might be of interest to him. A week later, I sent along an email with my recommendations and he was so impressed he introduced me to several product groups who eventually hired me to create partner strategies. His cost was nothing, other than a short conversation, while the impact to my business was tremendous.
Your reputation is on the line. Direct experience counts. Regarding LinkedIn, while some try to establish as many connections as possible, I only connect with those with whom I have personally worked, with only a few exceptions of individuals with whom I have a personal relationship, and have seen their skills. One example of this is a woman who is a friend but became a chef following her divorce. I’ve cooked side-by-side, love her food, admire her skills and can recommend her for catering and personal parties. As a chef in a restaurant? No, because I’ve never hired or seen her in that capacity, but for limited venues, of course.
Add value in every conversation. Contrary to popular belief: It’s not all about you. It’s a mistake to always push what you are selling, or share an opinion where’s it’s not required. Both convey an intent that you have an agenda. Giving value, whether it be a story idea that’s not about you, your company or anything that benefits you monetarily, is a way of giving service to someone else. The highest level of regard is when a member of the press calls you for a story idea, a source or information about a particular subject. It means you, in fact, have added value, you can be trusted and you won’t go spouting off your mouth about your connections.
I distinctly remember one of my first contacts at Inc. Magazine, Chris Caggianno, who had interviewed me for an article when he was a reporter. I wasn’t the dominant subject of that piece, but during our (short) call, I asked him about other stories he was writing. He shared enough for me to suggest several potential interview sources that might help him get what he needed, fast. Several weeks later, I received a thank you email for the introductions. A year after that, Inc Magazine wrote a profile piece on myself and my company, and later I was invited to speak at their annual Inc. 500 event. Chris had moved from reporter, to writer then editor, and my relationship with him evolved accordingly, but I will never forget it all started with a simple question.
Don’t name drop. I’ll often get calls from recruiters about C-level positions who want names, first and foremost. Never, ever, give a name. Offer a general description of an individual so see if it matches the description of what’s required. Then take the time to call that individual personally, assess the interest level and then provide an introduction as desired/requested. Too many people name drop about who they know but even doing that violates a sense of trust and privacy. Go slow and respectfully.
If I could leave you with only one bit of advice it’s this: Make it a habit to ask: “How can I help you?” For me, these are the five most important words in my business vernacular, so don’t be surprised if you read it in more than one of my books. Also, don’t be surprised if this is met with a certain amount of cynicism; that question is more apt to be heard when a funeral is being held and the bereaved needs a potato casserole. But it’s a real, legitimate question and when asked with sincerity, yields incredible responses.
- “I am about to fire my senior director and I need a replacement.”
- “My manager is going through a divorce; her productivity has taken a dive but I don’t want to fire her.”
- “Don’t say anything, but I want to give you the heads up I may not be here much longer. My boss is a terrible manager and I can’t f$%&ing take it anymore.”
These three examples are the tamer comments I’ve received when I’ve asked this question. I never know what I’m going to hear, but guaranteed that if the answer is anything other than “I’m good, but thanks for the offer,” and if the person trusts you, it will be significant.
Asking the question creates an invitation for real connection, candor, and in that moment, the conversation transitions to something more. Something deeper, more important and trustworthy. When that person answers, they are effectively saying: I heard your intent and sincerity, I trust you enough to share real issues with you, and you may actually help me out, so here it comes.
That’s when you have really won. Those are the people who will be in your life for twenty years or longer, who will grow and evolve with you, regardless of your position or title, who you are married to, or where you live (thank heaven). Those are the keepers. It is up to you to maintain that same place in their life.
“A friend is one to whom one may pour out all the contents of one’s heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that the gentlest of hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.” ~Unknown