Never let any relationship, internal or external, go stale or unmanaged.
When we asked A.J. Wasserstein, CEO of records management and storage company ArchivesOne, for his most important leadership secret, his immediate answer was: “Never let any relationship, internal or external, go stale or unmanaged.”
Why the emphasis on relationships? It’s based on the simple premise that virtually everything accomplished in the business world is done with the help of other people—especially true for managers and executives who delegate tasks to others, or workgroup members who depend on their teammates for critical information or assistance in completing their own tasks.
“You never know when you will need help or support from a person,” says A.J. “If you actively manage those relationships, and keep the relationship warm, it is always easier to gain that person’s cooperation.” Relationship management is not restricted to customers and employees. All relationships—potential customers, vendors, suppliers, business partners, regulatory agencies, analysts, and shareholders—require nurturing.
When asked for an example of the principle of relationship management at work, A.J. cited ArchiveOne’s Alumni Acquisition Program.
“Our company is executing an acquisition program,” he explains. “We have acquired eleven companies in our industry, seven in the past two years. We have an Acquisition Alumni Program where I actively communicate with the sellers of the companies we have acquired on a quarterly basis.”
Often after an acquisition, the buyer and seller part company for good. But not A.J. Wasserstein. His ongoing communications with his sellers might include a handwritten note, a telephone call, mailing an interesting business book, a basket of cookies, or something related to the seller’s hobbies. “We no longer have any business relationship with the sellers. We just want to maintain a nice, warm, friendly relationship.”
Think this seems like a waste of a busy CEO’s time? Think again. Recently, a pending acquisition candidate asked A.J. for some references to sellers whose companies he had acquired.
“This turned out to be an extremely easy request to fill, since I have warm and active relationships with all of our sellers. There were no reintroductions or favors to ask A. J. all of the sellers were delighted to assist. We got rave endorsements and won the $5.1 million deal. The deal was ours because we never let our relationships with the sellers of the companies we acquired go stale.”
How can you create strong relationships with people who can help you and your business? A.J. says, “Relationships are built on a mutual exchange of explicit or implicit needs. If at minimum there is something being exchanged or provided between two parties that creates value, then a good or at least tolerable relationship can exist. If there really is nothing being exchanged that is valued by at least one party, then the relationship will probably atrophy.”
Personal chemistry can help keep a weak relationship from falling apart or make an average relationship stronger. “Relationships are augmented when there is personal chemistry.”
All well and good if you are a so-called people person, but what if you aren’t? What if the initial chemistry between you and the other person is not strong?
“When there is a lack of chemistry, I think about why: Was there something I said or signaled that created ill will?
“The best way to identify with a person is to learn more about them by asking questions. Typically, when people learn a bit more about each other, preconceived notions are mitigated and bonding can take place.
“I hope this does not sound contrived, but I think people like other people when a genuine interest is expressed in the other person’s world. Most people love telling you why they are so successful in their business, with their family, and so on. Let them brag a bit about the things that are important to them.” But don’t brag back. Your goal is to establish empathy, not to compete and see who’s better.
“Also, a successful relationship is based on doing exactly what you say you are going to do—and a bit more. Once again, sort of simple, but it is amazing how many people just do not execute on what they promise.
“Finally, constructive relationship management thrives on ferreting out ways you can help other people with their needs to make their life easier.”
Sounds sensible enough. But what do you do when a relationship has soured—for instance, when a customer is unhappy with your quality, upset about missed deliveries, or irritated by a price increase?
Wasserstein follows a simple four-step process for regaining the other party’s confidence and trust in you:
Fully acknowledge any wrongdoing on your part.
Tell the other party exactly how you will set things right.
Fix the problem.
Follow up with the other party to confirm that the problem was fixed to their satisfaction.
“I know this sounds simple, and it is, but this works powerfully. It always amazes me just how forgiving people are if you acknowledge, fix, and follow up,” says A.J. “When a relationship breaks down and you fix it in this fashion, you actually strengthen the relationship and create positive goodwill.”
What advice does A.J. give to others who want to become better leaders?
“Leadership might be a difficult skill to learn, but a person can be a better leader by acting truly and doing the right thing in the face of adversity, when it is difficult and not the easiest choice,” concludes A.J. “Observing other successful leaders and patterning your behavior characteristics on theirs can help, too.”