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  • Writer's pictureMalcolm De Leo

Friends with "Business Benefits"

When someone says to you, "It's just business" what goes through you mind? Does the cold reality that the person who said it to you is essentially saying, "I don't care about you, I only care about me right now and if you can't handle that you are weak"? This is what working together in the modern world has become; transactional relationships between people whose loyalty tends to be served by one's selfish interests. Some may say this is cynical view of working in the corporate world, but hey "it's just business" right? In our hearts we know this way of behaving isn't what is right, but why do we do it anyway? Well, because culture is a strange thing. It has a funny way of creating norms and rules that most people fall into without realizing they have lost themselves in what is really just a transactional language created by a numb-minded collective.

So is there a better way to do business?

Well, anything is better than the cold feeling you get when self preservation and the inherent cruelty of the rules of capitalistic dogma hits you in the face. Does this mean that business is filled with sunshine and puppy dogs? No, it isn't and it shouldn't be, but there are other principles that should be used to drive a level of personal clarity that makes you the person they want on their team, the person they call over and over again, and most importantly the person that they trust to deliver.

How about this; rather than put business first and relationships second you put relationships first before the rules of business? Seems pretty obvious, but is it? This statement doesn't mean we maintain our relationships at all costs. It also doesn't mean that because we have a relationship that one must always must do what makes the other person happy. Sometimes what is best for a relationship isn't always fun or happy.

Look at this statement literally; Relationships first, the Rules of Business Second. When you look at it this way, suddenly the statement has even weight. In fact if we look at is as a chemical reaction (so geeky...I know)

Relationships First + time + energy ===> Ethical Behavior + $ + Lasting Results

Throughout my career I have found that when I build strong relationships based on mutual respect, the tough times are way easier to deal with. In essence, when we make a commitment to the personal relationship first, the "it's just business dialogue" becomes infinitely more honest and productive. Usually at the end of those moments, I look back and realize I am way better off even if it didn't seem that way when it was tough.

How does relationship first business second work?

Step 1 - Say it: When you are going to start doing business with someone say it to them. "Listen, I put relationships first, business second".

Step 2 - Define it: Operational definitions are the key to minimizing miscommunications. In this case let them know what you mean. To me it means, I hold this relationship very dear. It means, I do this because I believe when we are having problems we can remember we care for each other when we have to deal with our issues (which will come up). And when the time comes for actual disagreement, we trust that whatever happens that we have each other's best interest in mind so the end result is about what's best for both of us now and over time.

Step 3 Explain it - Managing expectations is about saying what you mean and meaning what you say. In this case, let the other person know who you are, what pushes your buttons, what things drive you crazy, how you like to do things, and most importantly what disrupts your value core. If people know what makes you tick, it creates strong boundaries and may even lead you to abandon that relationship before it starts. This method also demonstrates a level of vulnerability that is often missing in the legitimate business world. When we are open about how to best build a great partnership, we can love our differences and often produce even more than we would alone or with someone just like us. It is easy to fall in love with working with people just like us. It is even better when two people who are very different can forge a safe bond built on trust to make those tense moment easy to forego.

Step 4 - Live it: You have said the words, defined them and explained what it means for you; now live it. Go about your work with others showing them that what you said is how you do things and what they can expect from you day in a day out. Make that relationship what you want it to be by practicing what you preach. This is the time factor. This is the energy that will produce the results we all expect to achieve by working together.

Step 5 - Mean it: Oh you thought you just had to go out and show people that what you said was true? Nope. This is where the real work begins. If you mean it, then when things get rocky you have to actually deal with it. There will be a time when things go wrong. Usually, this is when people are all talk and no action. When the sand paper begins to rub the proverbial skin the friction will cause irritation. Now you actually have to deal with the issue. And when you do you have to remember Step 1. Remember you put this relationship first and the business second. So have that tough business discussion with that in mind. The business discussion, the disagreement, the issue at hand will still be an "it's just business discussion" but it should be way different. Remembering your relationship is what matters, helps you dig into the issues more honestly and with way less agenda. You will both be able to see each others issue more clearly. You will be able to hear differently and ultimately come up with solutions that are right for both parties. You will will work.

Putting it into practice

Not too long ago, I was working with a leader who was very different than me. We had worked together for a long time and frankly it took him a good bit of time to see that my relationship first, business second wasn't just talk. Over time, this person began to trust me, value my counsel, saw the results I delivered and frankly saw the loyalty I offered as something real. I was very proud of how our relationship became one of honesty over time. We were very different, but I knew what to expect from him and he knew what to expect from me. It became very productive.

At a certain point, however, business challenges forced me to change the role I played for him. I did it because I believed in what we were doing, I wanted to help and those I worked with asked me to take a role I could do but wasn't a perfect fit. I did the uncomfortable thing, learned a ton of new skills and even exceeded the target. It was a great experience that taught me a lot.

But frankly, I was playing out of position, and we both knew it. We often talked about it, and I respected my counterpart for the honest discussions we had. After helping in this regard for almost 18 months, the business changed again and I was required to continue in this role that frankly didn't get the best out of me. This is when the test came. Why? Because it became apparent that the end was coming. I knew after a very long run, the needs of the business were different than what I could provide. So we faced it.

Rather than run or avoid the issue, we sat down and talked about it, openly. The first discussion was tough, but it was fair. And while I didn't agree with everything that was said, I voiced that the relationship was important and we agreed that it was true. It changed the entire dialogue because I could trust the outcome was about maintaining our relationship. It helped me see his point of view. It helped me come to terms with the place we were in. And most importantly, it helped us work out how to part ways in a very healthy way. I expressed what I thought was fair. He presented his solution to the problem. And frankly, I didn't completely agree with him, but because I knew he valued the relationship he was pushing himself to be as fair as he could be by his definition. This made it very easy to see his position and ultimately helped us part ways.

In fact, soon after leaving I went back. It wasn't awkward. It was healthy and I know that I can count on him when I need him in the future and he can count on me. Because we were true to relationship first, business second, which forged a stronger bond through the toughest of issues. In fact, leaving was a gift because it helped launch me into bigger better things. It freed me to find a new path that was actually more productive than hanging on to what had become less than ok.

Why does this matter?

When our time working is done, we have the results, but to me it's the friends I learned from along the way that made the journey well worth it. Because what makes the journey worth living is this; on any given day, at any given time, we may meet someone who says something, shows us something or teaches us something, and whether they are there for a moment or the rest of lives, that may change us forever. If we see people as an opportunity to do great things rather than a simple means to an end work will become a much better place.

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