The Value of Professional Relationships & Guiding Principles for Getting Started

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You have to be strategic with how you spend your time, and who you spend it with. But when you start looking at your relationships in this way, and when you try to measure the ROI of your relationships in an attempt to prioritize where you spend your time, you run the risk of being inauthentic or manipulative. Relationships should be genuine, non-transactional, and mutually beneficial. 

So how do you decide when and who to spend your time with? If you have two lunch conflicts, how do you prioritize which person to allocate your time? And how do you balance that with your ethics and morals so that you don’t become self-serving and manipulative? Only you can answer these questions, but hopefully what I’ve shared here will give you a solid framework to apply to your specific situation.

THE VALUE OF RELATIONSHIPS

At their core, professional relationships provide individuals with the ability to accelerate their problem solving activities. They create mutual value between two people. The most important thing to remember when fostering and growing your relationships is to focus on the value that the relationship provides to the other person, not on the value that they provide to you. If you do that, everything else will fall into place.

So how do you quantify “value” when it comes to measuring a relationship? I asked 23 Business Development professionals, from junior to executive roles, what the biggest value drivers were for them when it comes to investing in relationships, and 63% of those responses included at least two of these three categories:

1. Knowledge Sharing (Information sharing, Information, industry insights)

Knowledge is a source of competitive advantage that’s been advocated extensively in management literature for decades. Studies show that “the more knowledge that a firm acquires and accumulates, the greater the level of firm performance”. The notion can be applied to individuals as well. Outside perspectives also help you and your firm avoid getting sucked into an echo chamber and becoming blind to outside forces.

2. Expert Advice (Consultation, education, learning)

If you’re doing something for the first time, if you need to verify your strategy, or even if you just need help getting started on something unfamiliar, your network can be a great place to look for advice and guidance. Need to bounce some ideas around, practice your pitch, or get feedback on your proposed solution? Your relationships can help you with that as well.

3. Introductions (new connections, intros, meeting new people)

Getting connected to the right person can be a tremendous challenge, especially when you’re just starting out in your career. If you look hard enough, you can leverage your relationships to navigate to the person you’re trying to connect with. A warm introduction versus cold outreach can dramatically accelerate your progress. 

A majority of the value exchange that happens between two individuals in a professional relationship really just comes down to problem solving and decision making. Leverage your relationships to brainstorm solutions, get advice, share information, or get an introduction. 

GUIDING PRINCIPLES FOR SUCCESSFUL RELATIONSHIPS

A strong relationship, just like a business partnership, is all about creating mutual value. But, many times the amount of value isn’t enough to establish and grow a strong relationship. Think about a scenario where you have a relationship with a person that creates value for you, they provide you with advice, they connect you with their network, and they share their insights with you on a regular basis. But, on a few occasions, this person has taken advantage of you, they’ve lied to you, and they’ve put you in a number of bad positions. You don’t trust them, and because of that, you may actually deprioritize that relationship simply because the value they provide doesn’t outweigh the risk. Perhaps you’re the offender? Have you sacrificed short-term gain for long-term value, by not being truthful, not delivering on your promise, or not setting expectations? I’ve developed a few guiding principles that will help you avoid these traps and focus on building and growing your professional relationships for the long-term.

1. Establish and Maintain Trust

The most successful relationships, whether personal or professional, are built on trust. Mutual trust is table stakes for any successful relationship.

People will misinterpret your actions, even when your intentions are good. You can hedge against these events by establishing and maintaining trust. The more trust, the more resilient your relationship will be, and the more likely the person on the other side will give you the benefit of the doubt when something goes wrong.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Be the person that’s strategic when saying yes or no. When you say yes, be the person that delivers. When you continue to make promises without delivering, people will begin to recognize the pattern, and they’ll reprioritize their relationship with you.

2. Create Mutual Value

Just like a business partnership, a successful relationship is mutually beneficial. 

Put your consulting hat on, understand their aspirations, what’s important to them, and the problems they’re trying to solve. Genuinely care about their success, and about their business.  Then, help them solve their problems, help them succeed, provide advice, be there as a soundboard, make a useful introduction, etc. This is typically how I approach BD and Partnerships as well. The most successful partnerships are built from mutual success. Your success is their success. Don’t just be the person that’s fun to grab a beer with, PROVIDE VALUE.

3. Make your efforts visible

Show. Your. Work.

If you tell someone you’re going to do something, and for some reason you’re unable to deliver, making your attempts visible to that person hedges against misinterpretations of false promises. A simple email or text to the other person updating them on the status works wonders. Sometimes things don’t go as planned, and when you hit roadblocks that keep you from delivering on your promises, showing the other person that you did everything you could to make it happen, showing the effort you put in, is almost as good for your relationship as delivering on your promise.

4. Set Expectations

This principle ties into the first three. 

It’s easy to exaggerate, and it can get you into trouble. Over-promising, or over-committing to something you’re unable to deliver on, degrades trust, and therefore your relationship. When you tell someone you’re going to move a piece on the board for them, they’re probably thinking a number of moves ahead with the assumption that you will deliver. That creates new problems for that person when you don’t move the pieces into place. It can actually have a compounding downstream affect, making more work than originally scoped, and putting them in a position to regret asking you for help.

Don’t leave room for misinterpretations. You may think that you said “I’ll try to do that”, but the other person heard “I promise I will do that”. This creates situations where the other person will begin to lose faith in the relationship, even though you thought you set the proper expectations. Make sure you over-communicate. 

5. Focus on the Long-Term

Don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term gain. 

Sometimes you may need to make a decision between a short-term win or a long-term bet, and sometimes you have to take that short-term win even when there’s a cost associated with it. It’s fine to execute on short-term wins when you need to, but whenever possible, focus on the long-term.

For example, let’s say you’ve stayed in contact with Bob, a former client.  You used to work together, you have a good relationship, you grab drinks once a quarter to talk about industry trends, you trust each other, you share advice, etc. There’s clear mutual value on both sides.

Bob comes to you one day to tell you about a problem he’s trying to solve, and he asks you to recommend a tool that he could license to address the issue. You know that your company’s product could solve about 50% of his problem, but it’s a bandaid solution, not really a long-term fit, and Bob’s company would quickly grow out of it. Which of the below is the right move?

A. Pitch your product and try to close a new deal, knowing that your relationship will give you the upper hand, and it will be a short sales cycle.

B. Provide insight and share how your product could be a stop-gap but they’d need to have  a plan to migrate to a different solution as their company continues to scale.

C. Provide insight and recommend the best tool for the problem.

Options B and C are both good options. In option B, you’re being transparent, providing a short-term option, you’re providing value, and you’re not degrading the trust you have with Bob. In option C, you’re strictly focusing on providing value, nothing else. Option A, however, will most certainly come back to hurt you down the road when it begins to create new problems for Bob.

Properly nurturing your professional relationships will accelerate your ability to solve problems throughout your career. Remember to focus on the value that the relationship provides to the other person, not on the value that they provide to you. If you do that, everything else will fall into place.