5 Steps to great business relationships

It was the early 1990s, the week between Christmas and New Year’s. I was working as a sales rep for a prominent software company. Making the rounds of my Wall Street clients, I wished them happy holidays and thanked them for their business.


As I was leaving an appointment with the CIO of a very large investment bank, I shook his hand and wished him a Happy New Year. He stopped me and went back to his desk, took out a piece of paper and handed it to me. It was an order signed by the CEO dramatically increasing their purchase of our software and renewing their contract six months early.

I was stunned. I hadn’t been looking to make this sale—really, there was no reason for him to reorder this early. But as his sales rep, this was spectacular news: As at many companies, my employer used “multipliers” at year-end to encourage reps to sell more, so I would make a lot more money making this sale in late December than in June.

I thanked him profusely. And as I walked back to my office, I thought about why he did it. How did he convince his boss they should renew well before they had to? What was his rationale to his boss for buying so much more?

Eventually it dawned on me that after years having a solid relationship with me, he’d taken an emotional stake in my success. He went out of his way and used precious political capital to help me out even when I hadn’t asked him to. If I had asked for this it is quite likely it would not have happened and may even have damaged our relationship.

To me, this is the defining attribute of a great business relationship: when each party has an emotional stake in the other’s success. This reciprocal relationship is common in our personal lives—in most families, we can expect our parents and siblings to have that, as well as some close friends. But for a business associate who was a stranger only two years ago, how did we reach this point?

I reflected on this and other business relationships that were similar. I looked backwards to see what was different about them. In the process, I identified five steps that lead to someone having an emotional stake in my professional success:

First, and somewhat obviously, they must like you. You can’t move very far in any relationship without this basic prerequisite. Being likable or not seems binary, but there are ways to make yourself more likable. You can also go about specifically trying to accomplish getting people to like you more. Go out of your way to be friendly and helpful.

Second, they must respect you professionally. They must look with admiration at how you do your work, how you behave, and how treat others. Specifically, are you competent? Are your professional? Do you follow up? Are you among the best at what you do? Work hard at getting them to respect you.

Third, they need to admire your “whole person”—not just who you are at work. This only happens as your relationship begins to migrate outside the workplace. Maybe you’ll attend a ballgame together, or go to a concert or dinner, often one on one. You’ll spend quality time learning about each other. Over time, as you get to know people better, other aspects of their life become part of the conversation. Are you active in church or charity? Do you volunteer? If you have children, how much time do you spend with them? Are you living a life worthy of others’ respect? Once this step has been accomplished, the other person will be genuinely happy and interested to hear of your success and accomplishments. There will be no resentment or jealously.

Fourth, your lives start to mingle more deeply. As this happens, it becomes natural to invite spouses, significant others, and children to your out of office interactions–things like cookouts, hikes, boating, etc. You’re spending quality time together really getting to know each other—and a friendship is really budding. At this stage, not only are they happy for your success, but they are willing to actively contribute to it. They may provide a job reference, invite you to an important conference, or set up a meeting with a peer of theirs at another company. At your initiative, they burn some political capital, happily, to help you out.

Fifth, you maintain the intensity of the relationship, over time, even after the business relationship is no longer necessary. Consistency and longevity are key. This is where lots of people fall off—once the business benefit disappears, they can’t “find time,” and the relationship fades away. After all the work they put in the relationship, just as it’s about to becomes the most valuable, they turn the dial down or off.

I’d gone through all of these steps with the investment bank CIO, and that’s why he’d sought approval to make a big year-end order well ahead of schedule. It’s also why, even after I left that sales rep job, we kept in close touch. Years later, he attended a family wedding. More than 20 years after that holiday order, I wrote a reference for his son’s business school application.

Good relationships and trust are the lubricants of a successful career and a well-rounded life. But it’s important not to pursue relationships cynically. Just as you need to get people to like you, these relationships are only really worth pursuing with people you genuinely like. There are enough people out there are really likable to not have to fake it.

Author: Jim Dougherty, a veteran software CEO and entrepreneur, is a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management.