(Excerpted with permission from Keith Ferrazzi’s book Who’s Got Your Back?)
What if, we hypothesized, we could adapt the don’t-do-it-alone advice that is the bedrock of twelve-step programs, Weight Watchers, and faith-based support groups and apply it in the corporate environment? Leverage the same basic methodologies found in the most successful behavioral change programs in the world to keep organizations and employees focused on positive change and targeted goals? Empower people with the tools to help each other identify and resolve issues that held them back personally and professionally?
Eureka! It was a triumphant moment.
FG had started facilitating peer-to-peer environments within structured groups like sales forces and executive teams. The returns were measurable and almost immediate, not least in the renewed excitement of their people and the company-wide commitment to develop new skills and improved behaviors. For our clients, these improvements were typically reflected in increased revenues within a couple of quarters. We were seeding companies with new tools and techniques, allowing their people to establish lifeline relationships with each other.
Peter Guber had helped me to see how alone I had made myself in trying to solve my problems as a manager and leader. And the work we were doing at FG had evolved into the blueprint to overcome it—to allow individuals to use the power of peer-to-peer support from a few close, trusted advisors—to do more, faster, and with more fun, and to become more successful at what they did as a result. I could see that my personal and professional lives had never been more aligned.
I hoped to get more of Peter’s input and time. But I realized I also needed support and advice from more people like Peter, trusted people with whom I could establish lifeline relationships. I needed a few key people in my life who had my back, whom I could talk to about anything and who would encourage and support me, give me feedback and perspective, tell me the truth even when it was a truth I might not want to hear. People who would hold me accountable every step of the way. I had served in that role for others over the years; now I had to start letting others be that for me. I had to let others in more deeply.
[Everything comes down to communicating effectively. Improve your communication understanding with Principles of Human Communication.]
Why Do We Need Lifelines?
Each one of us is a salesperson, leader, and entrepreneur, seeking answers. All of us work hard at our jobs and careers—and I include stay-at-home parents in this category. We’re all entrepreneurs of our own ideas, whether we own our own companies or work for someone else. We’re all leaders in our own lives—with our colleagues, with our employees, with our kids, and in our communities. Each one of us is a salesperson of ourselves and our opinions, if not of business products and services. And most of us come up against personal and professional problems that are just too big to solve alone. If we want to be as successful as we know we can be, we need the help of others.
So whether you’re running a country, a business, or a household, you can’t know everything you need to know to be successful—no one can. We need the advice and feedback of people we trust. It’s why mothers instinctively reach out to other mothers for advice on schools and doctors. It’s why parents talk to other parents about schools, curriculums, student activities, social events, dating, teenagers, and the like. It’s why the most successful teams surpass each team member’s wildest individual dreams. It’s the reason presidents create “kitchen cabinets.” Reaching out to and connecting with others doesn’t show up on the syllabus of most business schools. But one day it will.
Here are eight things that are clear as day to me:
1. Life coaching, with its hazy self-helpish title, comes in for more than its fair share of ribbing in the media and elsewhere. But look past the snarky skepticism and you’ll find a nearly $3 billion market of executive, life, and career coaches. And it’s growing at a clip of 25 percent a year! A massive industry has emerged suddenly to fill a relationship vacuum. As a society, we’re crying out for more community, more help, more advice and support. As individuals, we’re looking for lifeline relationships anywhere we can get them, even if we have to buy them. This is an issue that’s not going away.
2. Most organizations remain entrenched in the status quo. And the status quo is often a hierarchical structure where communication is downward, linear, and one-way, from management on down. But real, candid communication—communication that spawns open, honest relationships—is nearly impossible if based on such one-way communication.
Top-down directives might have been fine when employees were factory cogs and work was all about efficiency. But most of us no longer do cog-like work. In the information age, success is less about efficiency than effectiveness—that is, the ability to get the right things done, rather than just the ability to do things right.
Those who have a few close, deep relationships are able to get the feedback, perspective, and input that are the lifeblood of effective decision makers. The better you become at building such relationships, the better you’ll be at what you do, and the more value you’ll bring to the table, whether you work inside or outside an organization.
3. A seismic shift is now under way as passionate individuals, empowered by technology, come together to form ad hoc “tribes” capable of tackling all manner of projects. The Internet has provided the tools for sharing and cooperating on a global scale.
Everywhere you look, you can see people coming together around shared interests to work together, to make change, to take action. The potential to transform the workplace, society, and the economy is revolutionary. And those who’ll play the biggest part will be the ones with the skills and behaviors that I talk about in this book.
4. The Internet is an important tool, but it’s not the answer. There’s an explosion of new sites available to help connect people. Ning, Meetup, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook … the list is endless. There are now countless ways to coordinate and connect us, but “connections” are not lifelines. Online, we have more “friends” than ever, but we’re still damn lonely. In 1985, the average American had three people in whom to confide matters that were important to him, according to a 2006 study in the American Sociological Review. That number has now dropped to two. More than 25 percent of Americans admit they have no confidants at all.
5. Considering the vacuum of skilled, effective frontline management in companies today, executives, managers, and employees who are proactive in finding a team of advisors to help give them feedback and coaching, accountability, and support are the ones who will flourish in today’s challenging environment. They’ll also save their companies a lot of time and money by being more knowledgeable, perceptive, productive, and innovative. Lifelines are prepared to take risks and speak openly with each other, fueling the creative interchange from which new ideas spring.
6. Most people want more out of work these days than just a paycheck. Heck, most of us want more out of life. Like no other time in history, people are taking the search for meaning in their work more seriously.
There is no easier or more effective way to gain that meaning in our jobs, and find work enjoyable again, than creating lifeline relationships. In his book Vital Friends, author Tom Rath cites research from the Gallup Organization that attests to the fact that people who have a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs. Yep—that’s seven times. Not only are these people more joyful and more apt to innovate, take risks, collaborate, and share bold new ideas, but their customers are more engaged as well. In fact, if you have close friends at work whom you respect, your employee satisfaction level increases by 50 percent (you’re happier with your benefits as well as your paycheck).
And that happens to be good for your employer, too. A study of fifty-five high-performing global business teams at fifteen global firms conducted for a 2007 Harvard Business Review article, “Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams,” found that deep social bonds were the major predictor of team success. The other two? Formal initiatives to strengthen relationships, and leaders who invest the time to build strong relationships with their teams.
But companies spend little effort to promote these kinds of friendships and relationships as of yet. Every one of those companies, though, is a tribe waiting to happen, a group of people hungry to be transformed by a few lifeline relationships.
[Learn to improve your professional presence.]
7. For business, an initiative is not common sense unless it makes dollars and cents. There are a handful of forward-thinking companies that formally encourage employees to establish lifeline relationships, as I’ll discuss later on. For the rest, their inattention has a price: According to a 2004 study by Deloitte Research (a group I actually kicked off when I was working there), the annual cost of worker disenchantment in the United States is a stunning $350 billion, and approaches half a trillion dollars globally. American companies invest $50 billion annually in leadership training. A report published by the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton (now Booz & Company) pointedly summarizes the situation: Senior executives in every industry and every region lament their organizations’ inability to execute. As firms grow in scale and scope in a global environment of increasingly rigorous stakeholder demands, the cost of complexity necessarily rises and the capacity to align and adapt invariably diminishes.
In other words, as far as leadership training is concerned, the loss outstrips the investment seven to one. Which confirms my opinion that most leadership training completely misses its target. According to Tom Rath’s Vital Friends, only 18 percent of people work for organizations that provide opportunities for social bonding in the workplace. In fact, many companies actually forbid the practice. That’s why we designed a set of formalized rules to show how this can be done.
A few companies have created outright rules against employee “fraternizing.” But more firms unwittingly discourage teamwork and mutual support through misguided policies. But companies and individuals who reject mutual support are going against the grain of research—and pure common sense.
8. And finally, mama knows best! As I and my staff got deeper and deeper in our research on peer-to-peer support groups, we suddenly started to see their imprint everywhere. From FDR’s and JFK’s kitchen cabinets to church basement support groups to the larger-than-life examples of successful bosses and their high-performing teams on the covers of national magazines, we saw groups helping to provide support and advice to improve the lives of others, every day.
I remembered my mother’s card club back in Latrobe. It was originally made up of eight women meeting regularly every month; for the past forty-three years they have shared their dreams for their families, their joys and struggles in their marriages, their frustration in making ends meet. When I called Mom to ask her about her group, she told me they were just talking about how angry they were over the growing size of the empty space at the center of a roll of toilet paper—not exactly what I was expecting!
Of course, they did much more for each other than commiserate over the price of paper goods. The ladies helped each other through cancer, heart disease, and the deaths of two members, “Aunt” Rita and “Aunt” Ruth, giving and receiving love and support from each other around the card table. I can’t tell you how glad I am Mom has had such a group over the years, especially since my father passed away.
Building My Own Inner Circle
Soon after Peter had applied his kick to my behind, I was eager to get feedback on how to turn my business, and my life, around. I decided to call Greg Seal, my old boss from Deloitte. For some reason, it just seemed fitting to reach out to Greg first. Though Greg’s nickname at Deloitte had been “the Hammer,” I felt safe reaching out to him and asking for help. Greg understood my general business, cared about me, and would be as happy to hear my voice as I was to hear his.
Greg lived a short flight away in San Francisco and was about to retire from Deloitte. I spent only a few years with Greg as my actual boss. But throughout my time at Deloitte, he was one of my strongest mentors. I also knew from experience that he would never candy-coat anything.
When Greg answered, I blurted out, “Greg, I need your help.” I was so nervous—after all, I didn’t want to lose Greg’s respect, admitting to the ways I felt I was falling short in my life. But I was even more afraid that if I didn’t get right to the point, I’d lose my nerve. “You know I’ve been building FG into what I hope will be a world-class consulting and training firm—basically the same thing you helped build and lead at Deloitte, but on a much smaller scale. And honestly, it’s been such a struggle, Greg. I’ve come to realize I’m not acting like a good manager. I’m not sure I’m even being a good leader. How can I be so good at helping advise others and be so bad at helping myself?”
We talked for maybe ten minutes, then Greg said what I expected him to say: “Keith, it sounds like we need to have a long slow dinner and a bottle of red wine.”
I couldn’t help but smile, as that was Greg’s solution for every important life decision that needed to be hashed out. He had taught me that everything, even business, always boils down to people and relationships, and those took time.
So Greg and I set a date.
[An advisor is a great person to develop a good relationship with. See why.]
That wasn’t so bad, I thought when I hung up. I’d just told one of the people I respected most, an early mentor I admired more than just about anyone in the world and whose respect meant the world to me, that I felt I was failing as an entrepreneur. Was it difficult for me to admit this to Greg? You bet. But I also felt in my gut that Greg, as always, would have my back.
Not long after that, I found myself at a dinner party talking with a man named Bob Kerrigan. During dinner, Bob mentioned that he’d read my book, and he began asking some fairly penetrating questions about me, my philosophy, and even my business—questions that might have come across as intrusive to some. But because of all that I was going through, I welcomed them. Bob had the same ability as Peter did to make a person feel completely at ease in about three seconds—or maybe I was finally ready to hear what other people were saying.
I was impressed by Bob’s directness—I hate small talk. Usually I’m the one driving such conversations, but this time I was the person in the passenger seat. It came as a relief, actually.
At one point, Bob even asked me about money—something he had plenty of (Bob has run a major financial services business for three decades). Me, I’d always made good money—I couldn’t recall a year when I hadn’t brought home plenty by anyone’s standards—but I’d always felt scared that the bottom would fall out someday and I’d be left without a safety net. Still, by burying my head in the sand, I’d frittered away a lot of money over the years. I used to say that as long as the card went in and money came out, I was happy. I may have liked to think of myself as a disciplined guy, but clearly I wasn’t grasping the whole truth.
Our company finances were also a bit of a mess because I spent so little time attending to them. My accounting department back then consisted of one very bright but inexperienced guy whom I’d hired right out of college to be a combination personal assistant and office manager. We probably lost $100,000 in uncollected expenses alone our first year out thanks to my sloppy financial management! (Money issues, as I found out later, rarely “just” have to do with finances. In the end, money is all about self-worth and self-respect.)
Bob certainly knew that this kind of behavior was a sign of something much deeper—and he gently began tugging at that thread. “How frequently do you look at your books, Keith?”
“I have someone in-house, my assistant, but that’s not working out so well,” I replied casually.
“Are you aware of your accounts receivable days outstanding? What is the total number? Are you on target to meet your plan? How closely do you watch your cash flow?”
This was dinner conversation? I literally laughed out loud.
So many questions, so few answers. But for some reason, I didn’t feel judged. Was I embarrassed? Sure, but I didn’t feel that Bob thought badly of me—he just wanted to help. Along with Peter and Greg, Bob was lowering a rope so I could grab on to it.
“Bob,” I said finally, “I cannot tell you how exciting this is to me. Thank you. I needed this. And I would love to talk more. Can we get together for lunch next weekend?”
“How about a nice long dinner this week?” Uncanny—he sounded exactly like Greg.
Bob and I met up as planned later that week and continued to meet at least once a month thereafter. Each time we met, he gave me homework, which I would take back to the office to discuss with my finance guys. Bob encouraged me to bring a full-time controller on board, which I did. As a result of our conversations, I buttoned up the ship that was FG. But naturally, our talks weren’t all about me. Each time we met, we discussed Bob’s life, his own dreams and challenges. I gave him homework, too, as well as ideas and perspective.
With Peter (at first a casual friend), Bob (a serendipitous encounter), and Greg (a former boss and mentor), I now had three incredible lifeline relationships to guide me, encourage me, help me to be open and candid—three people who had offered to be generous with their time, hold me accountable, and help me to achieve my full potential. I had my own protective tribe keeping an eye on me—and me an eye on them.
We all tend to believe that such moments and those people come into our lives by chance, and rarely. But I assure you, they don’t have to be either haphazard or rare. As I’ve discovered, we can proactively create these transformative relationships and the positive life changes they lead to in our everyday lives and in the workplace. This kind of support can be yours tomorrow.
So what happened in my life as a result of this support?
For starters, I tripled my company’s earnings in one year. We quickly expanded this practice to our team at FG—from the entry-level associate all the way to the sales force and my senior team. I began to open myself up to my colleagues, tentatively at first, and then more boldly. Not only did I learn to delegate better and more often, but I brought in new senior management that allows my company to have entire businesses that run without my involvement at all. I’m working less and earning more.
In response to the measurable results we were experiencing in our corporate work and within FG, we formed the Greenlight Research Institute, a think tank devoted to studying how better relationships in the workplace and among customers can lead to more sales, customer evangelism, higher employee engagement scores, lower turnover of key resources, measurable increases in productivity, and noticeable innovation through more healthy risk taking—not to mention a more caring and connected leadership that has paved the way to a better work environment for everyone.
And the wins haven’t stopped for us, or for our clients and their people. The support of a close circle of friends and peers continues to define, enrich, and encourage my professional trajectory. I feel happier and more fulfilled. I no longer panic or get angry over important decisions gone south. I’ve regained control of my life, both personally and professionally. I now go through my life with the help, support, and advice of a close group of advisors I trust, respect, and admire who are just a phone call or an office visit away.
Not surprisingly, my relationships with my staff have improved 250 percent. (I don’t know why I pulled that figure from the air; let me just say at last we’re the team I’d always hoped for.) Of course, this new environment doesn’t mean that conflicts and mishaps don’t happen. They do. The difference is that now when they come to light they are remedied quickly, candidly, and as a team.
Today my office—we recently moved to a much bigger building, with plenty of room for growth—is a retreat for me, rather than being a source of concern.
Ferrazzi Greenlight is on its way to surpassing all my dreams.
Four Ways Lifeline Relationships Will Help You
There’s a good chance that you’ve already experienced the power and potential of lifeline relationships at some point in your life. Imagine some of the attributes of the best bosses you’ve ever had—the kind of boss who encourages you, who gives you space to grow, who appreciates your efforts, who doesn’t micromanage but guides your development with wisdom, and who handles your slip-ups with firmness, understanding, and candor. Or think back to that good friend or family member who dropped everything to be there for you at a critical juncture in your life and didn’t let you fail. Picture that associate you had at work who took a risk for you, and whose influence still touches you today.
If you’ve ever had an important person or group of people in your life who’ve shepherded you in the right direction—even if you’ve had just a taste of it—you know what I mean. And you can have more of that in your life—right now!
How will these relationships benefit you? Here are four ways I believe lifeline relationships are critical:
1. To help us identify what success truly means for us, including our long-term career plans.
2. To help us figure out the most robust plan possible to get there, through short-term goals and strategies that would tie us into knots if we tried to go it alone.
3. To help us identify what we need to stop doing to move forward in our lives. I’m referring to the things we all do that hold us back from achieving the success we deserve.
4. To have people around us committed to ensuring that we sustain change so that we can transform our lives from good to great.
Mentors and Lifelines
Although I believe mentors are essential to all successful individuals, there is an important distinction between mentors and lifeline relationships. The mentored relationship is one, in essence, between master and apprentice. The mentor generously shares knowledge, contacts, and the full wisdom of his experience with an eager and deserving student. It’s certainly not a one-way relationship—there are many ways that the student gives back—but the balance of authority is heavily weighted toward the mentor.
A lifeline relationship is one between equals, between peers, between individuals who can be intellectual sparring partners and confidants.
What are some of your most important lifeline relationships?