“It doesn’t matter what business you’re in, we’re all in the people business”

I remember these words vividly, spoken to me by my uncle Morris as he escorted me to the elevator of his Park Avenue office building.  I was visiting New York City for interviews the summer before my senior year of college and I swung by for a visit on my way out of town.  His words hung with me for a second as the elevator door opened and I got in.

Thinking back to that moment – nearly 10 years ago – Morris’ words have never rung more true for me than they do today.

I read lots of business books about how to succeed in corporate cultures and how to win friends and influence people – but when it comes to building authentic relationships, I’ve found that there really is no secret trick.  Sure – there are formulas written by business gurus – but there’s something about approaching relationships formulaically that lacks true authenticity.

I believe the process of building relationships should be rather straightforward.  Whether it’s with a client, a direct report or a colleague – the process is the same and it’s centered on understanding and trust.  Here’s what’s been working for me:

1)   Try to see the world through the other person’s eyes.

The first step to building an authentic relationship is to understand the person you’re working with.  How do they see their role?  What do they think their job is and where do they think they add value?  Also, what does that person need to do in order to get promoted, rewarded, or otherwise lauded by her colleagues?  Once you truly understand the person you’re working with, you can start asking yourself questions like: what would I want to do if I were this person?  And how can I help this person better do her job and achieve her mission.

2)   Help the other person see the world through your eyes.

Just as you’ve taken steps to understand the other person, make it easy for them to understand you.  Help them understand your goals, aspirations and what value you see yourself adding.  It can sometimes help to show vulnerability here – explain what you’re good at and what you’re not good at.  The more honest you are, the better; it will allow the other person the opportunity to reciprocate and list their strengths and weaknesses as well.

3)   Be honest above all else.

If you under deliver on a promise or commit an error, be emphatically honest about your failure.  Own the mistake and make sure the other person understands the reason for the miss.  Was the work harder than originally planned?  Did the person who was working on the project get sick?  Or did you simply sign up to deliver too much to begin with?  If it’s something you can’t say, be honest about that too.  Nothing tears a relationship apart faster than dishonesty.

4)   Push toward business casual.

Authentic relationships are never strictly formal.  Relax, let your guard down, and try to make the other person feel comfortable too.  The more casual you can make the relationship (while still maintaining baseline professional boundaries), the faster the relationship will progress.

5)   Take a genuine interest in the other person and their lives.

It’s simply more pleasant to be surrounded by people who take a genuine interest in your life.  We’re not robots and we spend the majority of our time at work, so taking relationships to an appropriately personal level never hurts.  Start with the conversational strongholds of “news, sports, weather” – and then progress to more personal topics, like weekend or vacation plans.  It’s just nicer to be around friendly, interested people.

The more time you invest in your relationships, the less time you will have to spend rehearsing formal presentations, making fancy power point decks and drafting long, complicated emails.  When you have truly authentic relationships, a phone call or quick drop-by at the person’s desk is usually all you need to do to accomplish your goals.

On Building Authentic Relationships
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