Who’s Your Relationship Manager?

5 minute read

In the past ten years or so, I’ve become aware of a trend in the business world of hiring Relationship Managers, whose sole purpose is to mind the company’s connections with internal and external stakeholders. Whether in financial services or the sales function of any industry, corporations have elevated this position to a key role in business today, and rightfully so, I’d say.

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However, it seems particularly ironic and paradoxical because, as anyone who has worked in business or owned a business can attest, our ability to succeed in and manage relationships is mission critical to all forms of business success. Relationships within and between businesses, departments, and units are crucial, but the very foundation of every task we complete at work lies in two people relating to one another. And since one person cannot possibly handle the hundreds, if not thousands, of relationships that undergird every single transaction a company engages in every single day, it seems somewhat absurd to have this position at all.

Put another way, everybody is a relationship manager, whether we like it or not.

Frequently, when I make this point, I get two main kinds of disagreeable responses. Some people accuse me of relegating relationships to a means to an end, such that maintaining a relationship purely to ease business reduces it to something transactional in nature. And why should we have to talk to or interact with somebody to move a widget from San Diego to San Antonio anyway, when we have so many automated systems today?

Suffice it to say, most business leaders would prefer that the widget gets moved in a quality and timely manner—more, better, faster, and cheaper, if at all possible. And the likelihood of that occurring goes up proportionate to the positive nature of the relationships involved.

A second kind of naysayer typically says something along the lines of, “I don’t have time to nurture a bunch of relationships. I just want to do my job.”

And I would suppose there’s a place in the world for that mindset, if we’re not interested in ease. But if we are, then it might be worth looking at certain aspects that strengthen the collaborative nature of the relationship, if in fact the relationship is collaborative instead of competitive. For instance, is the relationship fair or unfair? Is it safe or unsafe? Or is it complicated and nuanced?

For relationships between people in separate, non-competitive businesses that are at different levels in a vertical chain, it’s perhaps easier to clearly identify the relationship dynamic. But what about people that are on the same team, working for the same company? Do we view those relationships as collaborative or competitive?

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For instance, deep down, Bob in Finance is threatened by Jessica in Accounting because he’s not sure he can trust her, and as a result, he’s constantly trying to get the better of her. Because they both work for the CFO, and they’re both trying to garner the CFO’s respect and admiration, the relationship is experienced as competitive instead of collaborative. What’s the quality of cooperation likely to be here?

Often, it’s not that the relationship can’t be defined in binary terms, it’s more complicated than that. But it can be boiled down to two main questions. Do we feel safe being honest and vulnerable with our relations? What are both the quantity and quality of our communications?

And finally, who exactly are our most important relationships, and how do we keep up with them?

Or more specifically, how many people are on your list of key relations? When was the last time you spoke with each of them, other than when you needed something from them? Because rest assured, if that’s all they are, their perception of the relationship and their motivations in service of it won’t necessarily provide the greatest ease.

And you say you don’t have a formal relationship list? That it’s in your head?? No, no, it’s in my phone contacts list, along with the other 381 key relationships in my life, you say.

When’s the last time you went through your contacts list on your phone in service of a business or personal idea or need? Were you embarrassed to think about the last time you talked to these connections?

In the infamous words of Dr. Phil, “How’s that working for you?”

Relationship management is a competency we all need to bring some attention to. Back in the day, business people had a rolodex to look up contact information, but it also could serve as a memory jogger, a tangible tool to help you be a better networker.

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If I might be so bold, you still need a Relationship Manager, and (if you’re not using a formal customer relations management [CRM] software), you already have one in your employ. I present for your consideration: the humble spreadsheet. Using a spreadsheet to track human connections may seem impersonal at best, but I would urge you to look at it this way: if these connections are worth having, then their relationships are worth doing intentionally, using the best tools you have at your disposal.   I have been using Excel spreadsheets to track my key relationships for years. Along with basic contact information, I also like to make very brief notes of the last time we spoke and what we talked about, as well as any key information they may have shared that would be helpful or respectful to remember the next time we talk. The basic rule is, use the spreadsheet to help yourself show up for others the way you’d hope they would for you. It’s just good business!

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