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


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?



The song goes something like, “God didn’t make the little green apples…” Well, it turns out, he did…and not just the green ones, but the red ones, and the pink ones, and even more from where they came from…

I recently learned that if you ate a different type of apple every day, it would take you three decades to taste every variety. That’s a lot of apples!  My supermarket experience offers me only a limited variety of apples – possibly three or four different types over the seasons. Apparently, the greater apple-world has apples that go beyond the sweet and tart of which we’ve become accustomed. There are ones that are spicy, ones that have a chocolate-finish after eating them, ones that taste like pears – the list goes on and on. I’m anxious to find these other types and taste them! I hear there’s a farm somewhere in Vermont that has them.  I’ll be checking it out.

This new variety-of-apples-awareness-thing got me thinking about myself, the variety of people I interact with every day – at work, at home, or otherwise – and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

The results of an MBTI assessment help us understand our preferences in how we gain energy, take in information, make decisions and orient ourselves in the world. I use MBTI when working with individuals and teams and find, for the most part, the information about individuals’ and teams’ dominant preference type is received well and with enthusiasm. The conversations around the self-discoveries of strengths and blind-spots generate spirited exchange and, often, surprise and laughter. I encourage continuing the conversation to keep the information alive and use it to explore new ways of thinking and engaging in relationships.  Most participants leave the workshops wanting to share their MBTI experience with their significant others and have them take the assessment, too!

We, of the MBTI-world, know that there’s more, much more to it, a depth of variety that is often the key to the richness in each of us.

As we dig deeper into MBTI and unpack its potential, the tool provides a roadmap to full and whole human development. We are not solely defined by our dominant or preferred functioning. Each of us has access to ALL the types within the MBTI dichotomies. In fact, we not only have access to them, they inherently live within us below the surface. Our opportunity is to be open to new experiences, stretching ourselves to try new ways of thinking and being that will develop the types that are waiting to emerge and thrive. Imagine the possibility if each of us were to fully access and taste the abundance and variety of agile living, doing, being and relating that is right there for the taking!

The questions are – What potential do you want to explore and develop within yourself, your team, and your relationships? What is untapped? Where are you open to stretch and grow?

You and I have what it takes to continue to grow and develop in abundant and bountiful ways. What it will take is to be fully open to opportunities that will allow us to shift out of our comfortable, well-practiced ways of being, tapping into all the type preferences that are within our reach and “tasting” something new.

Will it take three decades? Hopefully, a lifetime!

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What Would Love Do?

I was delighted to learn this question while attending Georgetown’s coaching certification program a couple of years ago.  The simplicity of the question gets to the heart of choice, a choice to tap into the basis of human love and commitment for another person’s well-being, allowing love to lead what happens next. A choice where, if love was leading the way, what might it look or sound like when all is said and done?

Love orients our intentions to a place of goodwill for others and being fully present for what they might need or want from the experience.  Love’s orientation opens the space, safely allowing them to discover and deepen their capacity to change and learn, even during the most difficult of conversations.

I am faced with a difficult decision – what would love do? I am in conflict with another person – what would love do? I’ll be having a difficult conversation with an employee today – what would love do? I want to coach my team to take more initiative – what would love do?

Leading by love gives us opportunity to grow, as well. It helps enhance and deepen our leadership presence. When our orientation is focused keenly on the other person – shifting our perspective from ourselves and our egos – we learn from another’s perspective and by how they come to conclusions. Love’s leading deepens the quality of the questions we ask and the guidance we provide. It changes us just as much as it changes them.

Today is Valentine’s Day, a day dedicated to love. What opportunities do we have to let love lead the conversations we will be having? What choices will you make?


Beekeeping and Leadership Effectiveness

Honeybees fascinate me.

I recently crossed off one of my “bucket list” items and spent time at the Heifer Ranch in Arkansas learning about beekeeping. Everything I knew about bees and beekeeping up to now came strictly from books or documentaries. No hands-on experience. So I heeded the nagging nudge and gave it a try.

Suffice it to say, I’m hooked.

Sue Hubell tells us in her book, “A Book of Bees, And How to Keep Them”, “The end of one honey season is the start of the next, and autumn is a good time to start with bees…Summer’s end is also the new beginning of a new cycle for bees. It is then that they prepare for the winter ahead, and their preparations, along with the help a beekeeper can give them, determine how good the next season will be.”

I learned a lot that week – how to calm the bees, extract honey, build and repair supers – all good, practical activities. The most impactful for me, though, was what I learned by observing the master beekeeper, Chuck Crimmins, as he lovingly cared for his bees.

It’s said that bees learn to recognize their beekeeper’s voice and the rhythm of his or her movements. Bees will react, either aggressively or calmly, depending on what is happening around them. Vibrations unnerve them. They can sense apprehension and smell fear.

Watching Chuck’s quiet and gentle movements was like watching a movie clip in slow motion. Bending to rest his ear on the side of the hive, he listens for the buzzing hum. Are the bees active? Quiet? He slowly removes the hive cover, gently pulling out each frame, holding them up to the sunlight to check the bees’ health, and tenderly uses his breath to blow them aside to look for the queen. Bees are landing lightly on his arms, flying around him – he works the bees all the while without wearing gloves! It was inspiring to watch Chuck’s quiet and slow approach how, as beekeeper, his role as helper, he held and cared for the space where the bees calmly work their magic.

Reflecting on Hubbell’s words and spending time with Chuck that week made me think about leadership and how we leaders can often get it wrong. We think our teams need us more than they actually do. We lean into our position, our expert-ness, our thinking that our way is best. We over-care and overbear, fill voids with our voices and opinions, stomp heavily on ideas outside our own – whatever it is, we get in the way of possibility and the creative magic that our teams can create.

Beekeeper-like leadership – this is a notion that I’d like to ponder a bit more. What opportunities do we have to lead our teams like a beekeeper tends to his bees? What are the ways we might lightly step in when needed, gently check-in to assess health, and then confidently assume that our teams are competent to learn from mistakes, perform and deliver? As Susan Scott talks about in “Fierce Leadership” – instead of holding them accountable, hold them able!” How significant a shift might that make?

Honeybees don’t really require our help; they’ve been collecting pollen and making honey for thousands of years. Perhaps the people we lead have an intuitive sense about how to work in ways that we can only imagine, if we only make way for their intuition to take hold.

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