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The Power of Relationships — Second in a Series on Customer Service

Originally published March/April 2005

This is the story of two individuals. Bob Sweeney leads a large and highly successful development office in one of the state’s most important agencies. He is a senior vice president for development and public affairs for the University of Virginia. The other, Ron Higgins, is a planning manager and zoning administrator for the city of Charlottesville.

DEVELOPMENT LEADER

Bob Sweeney is an extraordinary leader. The development office that he leads raises several hundred million dollars a year. Given his office’s significance and visibility, you might think that our talks are primarily about strategy, or marketing, or organizational change. We sometimes discuss those topics, but they aren’t Bob’s highest priorities. No, our conversations focus primarily on the people in his organization. And when we start discussing the people, that’s when he gets most engaged.

The other day he was describing his process of hiring key managers. “I don’t believe in having applicants sitting through long interviews with search committees,” he said. “Anyone with some intelligence and experience knows how to handle those kinds of interviews, and frankly, how much do you really learn? No, what I like to do is to spend several hours with the person myself. I want to get to know them, to find out what they’re trying to do in their life, and to tell them about my hopes and goals for our organization.

“I’m totally open with them in these conversations. Some people can’t believe the candor. But I figure, it’s important that they know exactly where I’m coming from, what we’re looking for in this position, and the kind of culture and values we believe in. I urge them to talk with anyone in the organization, not just the search committee, and ask anything on their minds. And when we make an offer, it usually works out very well.”

And then what happens, I asked? “Well, it takes most people a month or two to get a feel for a new organization. So I wait a couple of months, and then go visit with the person. I ask what their impressions are, what surprises them, what it’s like working with our staff. It’s very important to me that we learn how others see us. These conversations really help me determine whether we’re living according to the values we say we hold.”

And what about the people who don’t get the job?

“They’re very important to me as well. I usually call the other finalists and ask to see them in person, to tell them of our decision. I want to tell them face to face what it was that I liked about them, what kinds of positions we might have in the future and why I hope they will consider applying to us again. I want them to see my body language and understand, directly, that I was impressed with them and sincerely hope that they’ll check with us in the future.”

Why does someone who directs an office with more than 100 people spend so much time on his new hires (and on those he doesn’t hire)? He’s absolutely convinced that it’s the quality of the relationships among his staff that makes the biggest difference in the organization’s success. He likes to talk about vision, he invests time in the office’s strategic plan, and he focuses on their bottom line which is raising huge amounts of money. But he believes to his core that getting the right people in the key positions, and creating a culture of open, candid relationships built on trust and respect is the most important task he performs every day. And it’s hard to argue with the results he’s getting.

CITY PLANNER

Ron Higgins has been a professional urban planner for more than 30 years. The more I see him in his job, the more impressed I am by the respect others have for him. Ron is often making decisions, or advising the city planning commission on decisions that are unpopular with certain groups in town. These decisions include developers who want to move their projects through the review process quickly; as well as neighborhood residents and environmental activists who want to slow many of those projects down. The director of an agency serving troubled youth wants to locate a new group home for teenaged boys in a nice neighborhood, and the residents protest that the home will increase noise in the area and harm their property values. It is the classic no—win job.

Since Ron is frequently caught in the middle of such disputes, how is it that he commands such respect? Watching him closely the other day as he was being challenged by three homeowners who were upset about a new development in their area, the answer started to become clear. Rob has extraordinary credibility. When he gives you information, you know it’s valid information. When he says he’s checked on something and it isn’t possible, there’s no question that he’s telling you the truth. Rob always does his homework. And it’s clear that he cares very deeply about doing a quality job.

But there’s much more to Ron than his candor, preparation and straightforward manner. He also listens extraordinarily well. Even when he totally disagrees with someone’s point (or has heard the same point made a hundred times before), he shows a genuine desire to listen, and to understand. Moreover, Ron is a warm human being. No rigid, “by the book” bureaucratic behavior here. No, he’s genuine, he can be funny, and he can laugh at himself. And in the end, he makes a decision that I know is sound. Watching him at a hearing, I found myself thinking, “Whatever he decides, I know it will be a reasonable position, and I’ll respect how he got there because I have such respect for him.”

Ron, you see, has credibility. He’s the “real deal.”

MANAGING RELATIONSHIPS WITH CUSTOMERS

Ron and Bob, in very different lines of work, both understand something that the rest of us should repeat at least once a day: when you work in a management or leadership role, you’re in the relationship business. Your customers may have a difficult time assessing the adequacy of your information technology; they may not be in a good position to judge how efficient your operations are, or whether you know how to partner well with others. But they know whether they’re being treated well by your employees.

Bob understands that his employees probably won’t treat their external customers any better than they are treated by their senior leaders. Ron understands that his city is judged by the quality of the interactions (or “moments of truth”) that hundreds of citizens have with his city every single day. And how do people like Ron and Bob make their interactions with internal and external customers so positive?

  • They truly respect the people they’re dealing with, and insist those around them do as well;
  • They maintain their credibility, always following through on their commitments, always doing their utmost to give people accurate information;
  • They’re genuine with others. When they get up each morning, they don’t put on a professional mask. They’re the same outside of work as they are behind their desk; and
  • When they have to say “no” to someone, they go out of their way to explain the reason, and see if there’s another way to help the individual meet his or her needs.

Perhaps most important, Ron and Bob understand that they are in the relationship business. They know that they and their associates are judged every day by the way they deal with others. They’re very aware that their decisions can never please everyone, and that isn’t their goal. Rather, they work hard to make decisions in a way that is open and credible, and their communication with others is warm and respectful. If we had a hall of fame for relationship management, I’d nominate these two. Whom would you nominate? And for what reasons?


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Russ Linden is the principal of Russ Linden & Associates, a management consultancy based in Charlottesville, VA. He is a management educator and consultant, specializing in organizational peformance and change methods for those in the public and nonprofit sectors.

He has written four books; the most recent is Working Across Boundaries, which you may order by clicking here .