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Relationships are a CEO’s Best Friends

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By: Kenneth Beck, CEO Connection By: Kenneth Beck, CEO Connection

The number one challenge faced by CEOs – according to CEOs – is that people do not understand the issues CEOs face until sitting in their seat. As a consequence, CEOs are always looking to spend time with their peers to commiserate, learn and share ideas. They want, in essence, to be alone together. From the December Issue.

If you attend large networking events to meet people and you are reading this article because you want validation about how you spend your time, stop reading here. I just do not buy that whole premise. It is too random. There are lots of articles on networking that will tell you to meet as many people as you can; you never know what can result from a chance encounter. This is not one of them.

It is great to meet people; it can be fun, it can be exciting and it certainly can be interesting. It can also be extremely time consuming, and one of the top challenges faced by CEOs of mid-sized companies is that they have no time to breathe. They are busy. The demands of their companies, their boards and their families leave them very little time for anything else. So regularly attending large impersonal events to “network” may be good for those in transition, but for the CEO of a mid-size company it is neither viable nor productive.

As president of the Wharton Club of New York, I lead an organization that provides benefits and services to more than 30,000 alumni in the New York metropolitan area. We run 200 to 300 events, meetings and activities each year, all designed to connect alumni to each other and to the things they need.

As chief executive officer of CEO Connection, I lead an organization that connects CEOs of companies with at least $100 million in sales to each other and to people, information and resources that help them.  We are in constant contact with more than 5,000 CEOs around the world. 

To the outside world, both organizations are considered to be “networking” organizations. To me, networking is a means to an end, not an end unto itself. We classify both these organizations as infrastructures that provide connections and value to their members. The goal is to connect people to what they need and to that which they could not easily get on their own. It is not just who you know, it is now who we know and to whom we can connect you. These organizations systemize the old boy network.

Commonality is the key. For Wharton alumni, their common experience is they all graduated from the same school. For CEO Connection, the commonality is the size of the enterprise they run. There are a myriad of these organizations out there for small business CEOs, and a couple for the Fortune 100, but this is the only one for mid-market CEOs. 

Both organizations are based on three principles:

Enlightened self interest. You have to give to get, and the larger the network, the more access you have – so it is in everyone’s best interest to help each other in order to grow the network.

Tangible results. You should be able to find anything you need by accessing the group; networking and events are a means to find what you need, not the purpose of the group.

Small interactive activities are better than large impersonal events. You build effective relationships through active interactions, not through passive listening.

Wharton alumni “take the call” from each other; CEO Connection is all about CEOs helping CEOs. This is not soft group therapy, kumbaya type of interaction. This is: I have a common bond with you and I would be happy to help you if I am able to do so.

It is lonely at the top, no doubt about it. The number one challenge faced by CEOs – according to CEOs – is people do not understand the issues CEOs face until sitting in their seat. As a consequence, CEOs are always looking to spend time with their peers to commiserate, learn and share ideas. They want to, in essence, be alone together.  

When CEOs make this connection – when they do find another CEO with whom they share this common bond of leading a company of similar size – they not only feel an immediate kindred spirit, they now have access to their new friend’s resources, friends and information. 

How much that new friend is willing to share is directly proportional to the respect, the confidence and the trust he has for his new friend and how good he feels about the relationship. Simply put: people are only willing to expose their old friends to new friends, not acquaintances or people with whom they do not feel any connection.

Conversely, which introduction would carry more weight with you: one from a close relationship or one from a friend of a friend’s friend?
Building a network group

Most people already have their own “network group.” Wharton alumni have lots of friends who are not Wharton alumni (at least some do) and CEOs have lots of friends who are not CEOs. By broadening your network you are able to have access to other resources and give access to those resources to your present network too. Here are five points to keep in mind when building your network group:

1.     Access comes from relationships, not links.
Relationships need to be deep, not superficial.  Technology provides a great example: there are people on Facebook and LinkedIn who friend and link with all comers. What is the value in that? Superficial relationships are not real relationships and will not help you in business or life. 

Of the 5,000 “friends” you have on Facebook, how many can you call for a favor? Not many because there is no real connection. Politicians link to millions of people. They only really know a few hundred, maybe a thousand (and by the way, those are the ones who get the jobs when the politician gets elected because they are the ones with the connections).

I would rather have five people I can call who will help me than 5,000 people who just know my name. That is the difference and it applies across the board regardless of the size company a CEO runs. It is quality not quantity that counts. Get involved in an organization that provides an infrastructure for you to connect with peers and spend whatever amount of time you have getting to know individuals rather than meeting as many as you can. 

2.     Be genuine.
Get to know people well and do so because you like them, not because you want something. Artificial relationships never work. If you do not like someone, do not attempt to build a relationship because you want something. It is a short term strategy that is not viable no matter how many different ways you try to rationalize it. I am not suggesting that you only work with people you like (actually, I am suggesting that, but sometimes it just is not possible). What I am suggesting is that if you do not hit it off with someone, that person is not going to connect you to his friends no matter how much time you spend getting together trying to make it work.

3.     Be a good friend.
You should be helping your friends, not just asking for favors. You have to give to get, but you should not be giving just to get; you should be giving because you like the person and you want to help him or her. Also, protect your friends; do not introduce someone you do not trust to your friends. Your friends are relying on your judgment when you make a connection. Only recommend people you would use yourself. Your reputation is on the line.

4.     Do the right thing, and always do what you say you will do.
This is really just a reminder.  You should always do the right thing. Read the book “Cheaters Never Win” by Jon Huntsman (Wharton, ’59). Relationships are built on mutual respect and trust. People are not going to give you access to their friends if they do not trust you and respect you. Would you? Be smart, be ethical, treat others the way you want to be treated – and do it when no one is looking too. Everything communicates, even actions you think no one will notice.

5.     Find an organization that works.
Organizations are generally passive. You join, you get a list of benefits and services and you are on your own. Find an organization that actively helps you use the benefits and services. Get involved with an organization that provides an infrastructure to support your needs. The group should be based around something that you have in common with the other members (alumni, position in life, etc.), should require minimal amount of time to get tangible benefits, and provide access to people, information and resources that will help you.

Finally, regardless of what else you do, have fun and spend time with your family. What is the point of doing all of this if you are not having fun and spending time with your family?


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