Based on my years of experience in both startups and large companies, trusted relationships are more the key to success than a great business model, how smart you are, or how much money you have. Aspiring entrepreneurs who struggle in a corporate environment often can’t wait to start their own company, only to find that relationships are even more critical and volatile there.
Many pundits will point to great entrepreneurs, including Steve Jobs at Apple, and Larry Ellison at Oracle, as examples of opinionated and egotistical leaders who succeeded without consideration for relationships. Yet insiders will tell you that both studied and valued the people interactions of prior leaders, and built very loyal relationships with many people who were key to their success.
The message here is not to use the public personas of leaders and entrepreneurs as the model for building and maintaining your business relationships. I’m convinced that the following personal strategies are required and practiced by every successful business leader, regardless of Silicon Valley myths to the contrary:
- Lead with business and technical acumen for people who count. As an angel investor, I’ve seen aspiring entrepreneurs who seem to be convinced that bravado and passion are a good substitute for real information and a plan. You only get once chance for a great first impression, so don’t forget that content wins in relationships over style.
- Building the right relationships requires proactive efforts. Don’t wait for the right people in business to find you – developers, investors, partners, or key customers. Part of the challenge in every business is to first recognize who can help you, and secondly take the initiative to build a productive relationship with that person or team.
- Avoid naysayers and downers. Smart business people learn to quickly recognize negative personality types, and avoid them at all costs. Innovative businesses are tough and unpredictable, so relationships with procrastinators, people handy with excuses and all the reasons something can’t be done, are not helpful and will drag you down as well.
- Maintain competitor relationships and seek alternate views. Good entrepreneurs recognize that strong competitors are smart people as well, and it pays to learn from competitors. Some of the best business partnerships come from “coopetition,” or finding ways to build win-win relationships rather than win-lose transactions with competitors.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help from people who are ahead of you. These include other business leaders, mentors, visionaries, and influencers. Bill Gates still relishes his relationship and advice from Warren Buffett. Maintaining these relationships will require you to push your limits, think outside the box, and carry your own weight with them.
- Incent others to contribute to your success. This can be as simple as giving back as much time and emotional effort as you absorb from others, or it can be offering real business payback or equity for contributions. Smart business people understand their own agenda, and they figure out the agenda of others, to build win-win relationships.
- Don’t back away from conflicts that can be constructive. Some conflict is inevitable. Strong leaders learn how to manage conflict to make it productive, bring out alternate views, and strengthen relationships. If you surround yourself with “yes” people, you may feel good for a while, but the unmentioned problems no one surfaces will hurt later.
- Actively and positively end relationships that are not productive. We all have limited bandwidth, and it’s not possible to maintain relationships with everyone. Sometimes it’s better to move on, without burning bridges for the future. Smart entrepreneurs recognize when relationships have been outgrown, or need to be limited do to conflict of interest.
Today’s business world more than ever is a networked economy, requiring collaboration, and is most productive with trusted relationships, rather than a reliance only on legal contracts. Building relationships is not rocket science, and can be learned by anyone. It is the common ground between corporate professionals and entrepreneurs. Start practicing it today wherever you are.