The Fine, and Critical, Art of Managing Relationships

Good relationships mean that others are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt when you're in trouble.
by | May 24, 2006

In 1988, when Bob Stripling was at the end of his tenure as town manager in Blacksburg, Virginia, he interviewed each of his council members for some very candid feedback. He wanted to know what they really thought of him as a manager, his strengths and shortcomings. They gave him information he's used ever since.

The most important -- and frequent -- comment Bob received, was this: "When you call, you are always trying to sell me on some project or issue, it's never just to talk." As he thought about it, he realized it was true. Bob was passionate about a number of things, and when a council meeting was approaching he often called the members and told them why he thought it was so critical that they vote for certain items. With some members, that was the major interaction he had with them, and they resented it.

He took the message to heart and decided to tone down his emotions, not get so invested in individual council votes. Moreover, he realized that he had to spend time with the council members, getting to know them when he had no agenda.

These insights served him well in his future jobs. Indeed, years later, he started telling people in his profession that a city manager's job is "all about relationships." For a guy who's a big introvert with strong technical skills and interests, that's an impressive change

The Power of Relationships

There are many reasons why strong, trusting relationships are important to managers, and none is more important than this: Good relationships mean that others are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt when you're in trouble. Managers in the public sector are going to make decisions that anger some people and groups, and sometimes they're going to make mistakes. It comes with the territory. The key question is this: When your mistake or policy decision angers others, will they cut you some slack? Will they remember that you've been open and candid with them?

And What Do We Know About the Art of Relationship Management?

When I ask managers what characteristics and traits they see in people who manage relationships well, the words are somewhat predictable:

· trustworthy

· good listener

· sincere

· keeps ego in check

· genuine interest in others

· self-deprecating humor

None of these are surprising. But what about those who aren't naturally adept at managing relationships? And what about those who aren't convinced that, as Stripling now puts it, they're really "in the relationship business"?

My answer is: consider Chuck Short's story. Chuck was director of the Montgomery County, Maryland, Department of Health and Human Services, and, later, an executive with the Archdiocese of the Greater Washington D.C. area. Chuck's life was changed when a very strong man (who wasn't known for his relationship skills) asked the right question at a key time:

In 1981, the Montgomery County executive was Charley Gilchrist. He was seen by everyone as an all-business type guy. First in his class at Harvard Law School, he was bright, ambitious, powerful, always focused on work. Many assumed he would run for governor some day.

That year, Chuck Short's son was born blind with a life-threatening condition, and, for six months, struggled to live. One day during that period, Charley Gilchrist called Chuck and asked, "How's your baby doing?" Chuck answered with a short response, "OK, his blood work looked good today, we're praying for him.... What can I do for you, Charley?"

Gilchrist responded, "Nothing, Chuck. You can't do anything for me. I just wanted to know how your little boy was doing."

This question had a powerful impact on Chuck, and that impact lasted for decades. When workaholic Charley Gilchrist asked about Chuck's struggling infant, Charley had no other agenda. Since that day, Chuck made a habit of calling or writing a note to a staff member, every single day. The call or note was to inquire or comment about some personal or professional aspect of their lives.

Today, 25 years after that phone call, Short says, "It's amazing how many people at Health and Human Services have thanked me for a note I sent on some occasion in their lives. They'd pull me over and show me the note that meant something, and frequently I'd sent it many years ago!"

It goes without saying that most employees at Chuck's former agency had great loyalty and commitment to him. They knew that he was concerned about them.

Some of us aren't naturally good at relationships. But, as Bob Stripling and Chuck Short learned, you can make a great start by checking in with others ... when you have no other agenda.

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