Keith Ferrazzi on trust, vulnerability, and deliberate relationship-building

Keith Ferrazzi, author of Never Eat Alone and Who’s Got Your Back, gave a fascinating talk yesterday at The New York Forum (event livestream is here – the Forum is from June 20-21st, my panel is this afternoon).  It was a broad brush conversation about how human beings build connections with one another, and Keith gave a passionate argument in favor of being more intentional about how we build relationships.  (bonus: if you want to dig into this stuff, check out Keith’s Relationship Master’s Academy.)

Keith’s headline is that we should all have a “people plan” – a listing of the top 25 relationships that are most important to our long term success, and a commitment to investing substantially and intentionally in these relationships.  And here’s the part that I loved: Keith argued that the only way to be successful in investing in these relationships is to lead with generosity, to enter every conversation thinking about “how can I help?”  This is the polar opposite of figuring out what we can get, the opposite of thinking about how to close the sale, and (of course) the opposite of figuring out what we can GET.

The other big idea I was left with was that, as life becomes increasingly virtual and as job tenure decreases, the natural building of relationships that used to happen in business is disappearing.  For example, Keith shared a story of IBM getting rid of all of its sales offices – the expectation was that this would both decrease costs and allowing salespeople to have much more time at home and better work/life balance.  What they didn’t foresee was how much was lost – the intangible connective tissue of shared stories, the decompressing and complaining about customers or about management, the informal mentorship that used to happen at the local Bennigan’s on Thursday nights.  The result: the company scuttlebutt is that IBM, which used to stand for “I’ve Been Moved” (to the next regional office) now stands for “I’m By Myself.”

Keith’s suggestion is that, especially for the generation (mine) that didn’t grow up in a social media, online world, we have to make much more deliberate attempts to create connection, to be vulnerable, to create an environment of trust as a precursor to the “business at hand.”  Keith shared that at Cisco, a major user of Telepresence virtual conferencing, they have implemented personal/professional “check ins” in the first 5 minutes of all Telepresence meetings, because the natural swapping of personal stories that happens at the start of in-person conversations actually doesn’t happen when we have virtual conversations.

Just one example, and I’m not sure I’d follow this one to the letter.  But I love the broader idea: that if we want to innovate, if we want to have tough and real conversations about big strategic decisions, if we want to dig in to areas of uncertainty, we will be much more successful if we make deliberate investments in creating bonds of trust, no matter how far away our colleagues or our customers sit.

Every day it gets easier to skip this step: to fire off emails to people we barely know, focused on the tasks they need to complete; to hold global conference calls in which most people say almost nothing; to never, ever, pick up the phone to a key colleague sitting far away, not with an agenda, but just to talk and see how things are going.

By skipping these step, we skip investing in trust, and we relegate ourselves to exacerbating global/local tensions, where trust and rapport exists for workers in the same office and global bonds – far from being stronger, thanks to all of this technology – keep on getting weaker.