The Critical Business of Building Relationships
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” —George Bernard Shaw
As do you, I listen to a lot of very smart men and women at our conferences each year talking about the state of the world and how to build a stronger business in it. But I have been especially struck lately, by the stark descriptions of how this country’s relationships with the rest of the world have broken down as the planet becomes a more perilous place to live and work. And it seems to me that there is a powerful lesson here about leadership, and the value of building effective relationships in our businesses as well as our foreign policy.
Let me be quite clear that I do not intend this to be a partisan political commentary in any sense. Unfortunately, the disintegration in our ability to understand the most disruptive and violent forces at large in the world, has taken place over many years, and many administrations. When it began is not important now. That it seems to be rooted in our diminished capacity to build relationships with allies and enemies alike is where I see the lessons for our industry and for our individual businesses.
The talent, skill, and art of nurturing relationships are no less important in business than in foreign policy. In both, effective strategy and action planning depends first on good intelligence. We must know and really understand our customers, competitors and vendors, not as cogs in a supply chain, but as human beings. There is a lot of talk these days about the impact, efficiency and effectiveness of digital tools for managing customer relations. CRMs, or customer relations management computer systems are the new “must have” element in any modern marketing plan. They can sort through thousands of transactions per second, identify potential customers, and help develop contact strategies, coordinate contracts with warehouse and shipping schedules. All are important.
“We must know and really understand our customers, competitors and vendors, not as cogs in a supply chain, but as human beings.”
But they are only elements in a business growth strategy that make the people behind the machines even more important. A computer does not build relationships. Only we and our leadership teams can do that. Make no mistake: If we are not continuously building trust, respect, and confidence in the people with whom we do business, we will lose that business.
Only we can tell our organization’s story in a way that builds the trust and enthusiasm that creates lasting business relationships. Only we can explain why our company is significantly different from the competition and thus worthy of new and growing business.
As we watch our international relationships waver from Israel and the Middle East to China and Russia, it may be useful to ask ourselves: Are we letting our business relationships falter, for whatever reason? Are we losing the will to reach out effectively, even to those we may not like? Are we becoming too transactional, focused on short-term gain at the expense of cultivating long-term partnerships? Are we locked so tightly in history, old perceptions, and old ways of doing business that we are unable to adapt to a new economic climate? Do we make commitments we can keep? Can our word be trusted? Do we follow up to insure we have done what we said we would do? Do we understand when we are really communicating, and develop the skills to see when we only think we are. As management guru Peter Drucker said, “The most important thing in communicating is hearing what isn’t said.”
The respect and confidence we can create offer incomparable value to business and foreign policy alike. Only men and women, looking each other in the eye can create that kind of value. Only then, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, can enterprises dispel the illusion that real communication has taken place, when it has not.