A New View of Working Relationships: Part Two—Customers and Suppliers

In last week’s introduction to this series on Working Relationships, we threw darts at the myth that people at work know exactly what they need and how to get it. This simple dictum—a kind of “conventional wisdom—is simply untrue. People generally don’t know what they need, and so part of what we want to do when improving our working relationships is to surface exactly what we do need—and to understand why.

We begin shedding light on the conventional wisdom by first introducing some ideas about being a customer and being a supplier.

From the moment we get up in the morning we are, in one way or another, a customer. You may have your morning coffee while watching the local news, in which case you are a customer of your local cable company (on whom you depend to provide the signal), the owners of the channel you’re watching, and those who put on the broadcast itself. If you channel-surf from the news to, say, a sports or business station, then you become customers of those services and companies as well. Perhaps you stop to get gas on your way to work, in which case you’re a customer of Shell, perhaps, or Sunoco, and if you then take a toll road to the office, you’re again a customer—this time of your state’s transportation department.

The list is endless, and not just in a metaphorical way. From now until your very last day on earth, you will be a customer: dry cleaning, dentistry, movie theater, super-market, electronic store, plumber, airline, bookstore, hair salon, hockey team, university, emergency road service, doctor, manicurist…. There is not a day—not a single day—in which you can (or should) avoid this role.

Yet we never speak in these terms at work. We talk about having customers—those individuals and organizations to which our company sales products and services—but we don’t often think of ourselves as customers of each other, customers inside the company. We don’t imagine that the engineering department, for example, is a customer of the finance department when, in fact, engineering can’t do a thing—can’t purchase materials or hire staff or maintain equipment—unless the finance department approves the engineering budget.

Being a customer is almost like second nature to most of us; given that we have so many customer experiences—every single day, in fact—it should come as no surprise that it’s pretty easy for most of us. In fact, most of the time we probably don’t think of it directly, we simply expect certain things to be provided to us, and to be provided in ways that are easy, that cause neither difficulty nor confrontation. And most of our customer interactions are like that—we walk into some place (or log on some site) with a set of expectations and most times those expectations are met. So used to adequate (one might almost say “invisible”) service, we acknowledge it only in the most automatic ways—a “thank you” and a smile at most.

But for every time we’re a customer, someone, it’s worth remembering, is acting as a supplier, giving something to us. And it stands to reason that we are also suppliers, often and every day. We’re probably much less aware of it, but we provide things to others constantly, mostly without even realizing it.

At work this supplier role takes on very significant meaning, yet it’s a role we almost never acknowledge. Too often we complete work we’re “supposed to” complete, yet never really understand what it’s for or how it’s used.

If you think about it, there is a fundamental relationship between person-as-customer and person-as-supplier. There must be, or else why would any product, service, or work ever happen?

Next week: Defining the “Customer—Supplier Relationship”

Images Courtesy of: stuartphoto / 123RF Stock Photo
and lightwise / 123RF Stock Photo


A New View of Working Relationships: Part One-Introduction

There are certain stories we all carry around with us, certain common cultural memes that resonate. For example, we’ve all probably learned that if you show up first, work hard, and recognize your opportunities you’ll likely be rewarded, because “the early bird catches the worm.” Or that consistent effort pays off because “slow and steady wins the race.” Similarly we’ve learned a host of values and mores, all guiding us toward ways we should behave.

These stories persist into our working lives; we carry them with us wherever we go, and that includes into our organizations and into the relationships we have with others in those organizations.

But as often as these stories are true, they are also misleading. We know, for example, that it isn’t always the early bird that gets the worm, because what really pays off is to “work smarter, not harder.” We also know that the sudden burst of inspiration can lead to innovation and growth for a company—along with instant “overnight” success for those who haven’t just worked slowly and steadily hoping to win the race.

One of the most pervasive myths that we find in working with organizations is the idea that everybody knows what they need to succeed, to get their jobs done. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you: “I need so-and-so to give me this-or-that.” And it will be spoken with such surety that no one will ever question that what people say they need is precisely what they do in fact need.

But, as it turns out, it isn’t.

When the company succeeds, so too can the individuals within it. But for that has to happen there needs to be a foundational understanding between and among the people who do the work, the people who actually are the company.

It starts with understanding need, but in a way that hasn’t been truly addressed before, in a way that recognizes that needs must be surfaced quite clearly, then negotiated and agreed to, almost as if they are an internal contract between parts of the company and the individuals within those parts.

We call this the development of mutual relationships, relationships that are based on fulfilling needs for each other in the context of performing actual work tasks.

And it’s entirely new.

Over the next few weeks we plan to introduce a variety of these new concepts—concepts that will change the way you think about relationships at work.

UP NEXT: What it means to NEED things…


The Paleontology of Coaching

When I was a little girl, my family would take month-long, cross-country camping trips each summer.  After first spending weeks plotting out our route from maps strewn across our dining room table, my parents would pack us all into a van: four people and three dogs, with a trailer looming behind us, hooked by steel and tethered with cables. My brother and I would load up on books (and, in later years, 8-track tapes) to occupy our time, since at least a part of each day was spent traveling long asphalt ribbons on which the scenery rarely changed.

We hadn’t much money to spend on extraneous activities. I remember stopping at the many historic sites marked by roadside markers, lunching at the picnic tables at the roadside overlooks and, vividly, stopping at hokey rock-and-fossil tourist shacks to satisfy my brother’s and my taste for something other than American history. These ramshackle places were usually managed by a proprietor who lived in back of the gift shop.

These were my favorite places.

For a nominal fee my brother and I would each be handed bucket, shovel and pick ax (those were the days when kids were allowed to try their hand at using, by today’s standards, “dangerous” tools) and sent out behind the shack to a sad little rock pile with promises of finding something possibly rare and precious. We were so hopeful. What might we find? Could it be that on this remote road in the western desert lay buried that one gem that might bring us wealth? Would we find a fossil that, when examined by the some museum, would be the link to a long sought-after geological question?

We’d dig, pick, and turn over the earth for what seemed like hours, hearing the tinny plunk as we placed our treasures into our metal buckets.  Then off we’d go to have the shop owner sort through our findings and provide us with his wise and experienced assessment.

Looking back on these experiences, it must have been with great patience that our parents allowed us the time to go on these adventures. I’m sure they had a schedule, and that stopping at a fossil pile was not originally part of the itinerary.  Still, it gave my brother and me time to play and dream.

This experience got me thinking about coaching and how often what we are seeking to accomplish might look, at first glance, like everything else around it, another mound of earth, of rocks, of sand. How might we sort through all that is here to discover and find those most important and valuable treasures? Just as with my experience in searching for fossils, the coaching relationship takes on that same pick-and-sort, save-or-toss kind of experience.

If everything is valuable to use or save, then nothing is. It takes time, work, and curiosity to find those few, precious treasures that will guide us towards effective change.

I remember saving those rocks and fossils on my bookshelf as I grew up. They would be a reminder of happy times spent in an adventurous search for the undiscovered. Today I no longer wield either pick or shovel, except metaphorically. That I do all the time, always looking for the new, the hidden, the treasured.

How might you sift through and examine what’s most undiscovered in your life?


4 Tips for Anyone Who Needs to Begin Something…Anything!

I’m sitting here, stuck for something to write about, so I’ve decided to write about it.

It doesn’t matter if you are a leader, coach, homeworker or student, I’ll bet there have been times when you’ve been stuck about how to move forward with a project or with your things-to-do list. Perhaps you’re a bit distracted by something that happened at home that morning. Or maybe you’re facing a tough nut and haven’t yet had that eureka moment that will help crack it open.  Or maybe you’re just simply blocked, short of ideas and frustrated.

I know I’ve been there (many times), and what I’ve slowly discovered is that by tapping into these four behaviors, I’ve been able to get myself refocused and unstuck, allowing me to move forward toward what I want to achieve.

Here are four things I do to get myself going:

Just Start — It sounds simple, doesn’t it? But the fact is that you can’t get moving until you start to move.  It doesn’t always matter how or what you do; just begin by picking up a pen, contributing a thought, initiating a conversation. The rest will oftentimes follow. Just think to yourself: “Why not?” and “If not now, then when?” Sometimes just one step towards your “doing” will gain you the momentum you need.

Just Breathe — Sometimes, by taking the time to take a deep breath, getting in touch with what you are feeling and calming yourself, you can get clear about the one thing that might be getting in your way. Reflect upon and identify what might be getting you stuck. Is your inner critic questioning your original idea? Is there someone’s approval your trying to get? Taking that extra moment–changing your “space, place or pace”– can often release whatever’s blocking you.Try it in whatever way you feel comfortable. It’s really quite powerful.

Just Ask — Asking those whom we care about and whom we respect can provide us with a broader view and additional insights. Anais Nin once said that, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” Sometimes we need to get out of our own way to see clearly. Allowing ourselves to detach from our own thinking and consider someone else’s perspective may give us the shift we need.

Just Walk – Taking time away can often open new ways of thinking. Take a walk, outside if possible.  Notice your surroundings, listen to nature, recharge your brain. We know that our brains need oxygen to function. That fabricated cubicle and formaldyhyde-laden carpeting may be clogging up the pathways to your eureka moment. I’ll bet that the unknown British chap who first coined “stop and smell the flowers” had this in mind.

Sometimes just one of these things will do the trick; other times it may be a combination, so feel free to pick and choose. Whatever helps you get yourself unstuck is fine. The point here is to take one step outside the space called “being stuck” and see what happens. My guess is that you’ll quickly find yourself back on track.

What have you tried that has helped you get unstuck?

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Leadership Coaching Focused on Strengths

Not long ago I spoke with a mid-level executive who had been asked to participate in a 360 feedback process.  As a result of that exercise he found, to no one’s surprise, that he had several vivid strengths along with several noticeable weaknesses.  The coach he was working with spent time discussing those strengths; the executive’s direct manager, also made aware of the results, began to speak to him instead about how to shore up his weaknesses.

As business and executive coaches, we are commonly engaged to work with leaders who have the potential to grow into the next level of leadership. And often the leader’s manager positions the coaching engagement as a means to help the leader get there. The rub is when it starts to become evident that there is an undercurrent where the organization really wants to bring in a coach to “fix” a leader or, in the case of my client’s experience, to focus on the weaknesses that his manager observed. His manager came from a place of “solving a problem” versus enhancing a strength.

We know, however, that there is true power in emphasizing strengths, building from those strengths, and using “appreciative” tools and techniques. By focusing on strengths and providing our clients with the means to recognize them, practice them and deepen them, our clients develop an even greater appreciation for the strengths in themselves and, ultimately, in others.

So how do we bridge that gap?  How do we work not only with our clients, but with the other relevant stakeholders, at least some of whom expect us to “solve problems?”

In my own coaching, I have had occasional meetings with organizations who were shopping for a potential coach, yet it soon became evident that the manager’s objective was to fix a leader’s weaknesses, to get them to stop doing the things that the manager sees as deficient behaviors.

My recommendation, in those cases, is to offer a dyad coaching approach — coach the leader to demonstrate and build upon his or her strengths and, concurrently, coach the manager around recognizing, observing and optimizing the leader’s strengths — both with an intention of goodwill and of deepening their working relationship. The conversations practiced and the subsequent outcomes are a win for both — recognizing and building skill and practice around strengths.

What are your thoughts about shifting a request to work on weaknesses to an intention towards strengths?