Most entrepreneurs, and members of any small team, naively assume that the key to their success is hard work, dedication, and long hours in the business. In reality, their effectiveness is usually more related to how well they develop their work relationships with peers and business leaders. First they need to decipher correctly every relationship as a workship, friendship, or foe.
Workships, according to workplace expert Dr. Jan Yager, refers to those workplace relationships that haven’t yet developed into full-blown friendships, but are closer than mere acquaintances. In her classic book on this subject, “Who’s That Sitting at My Desk?” she explains the importance of mastering work relationships, and provides specific guidance on building the right ones.
It behooves all entrepreneurs and team members to recognize the positives and negatives of each type of relationship. More importantly, we all need to develop the right relationships, and actively avoid those types that are not right for the business, or not right for our career at a particular point in time. Here are the key ones I have experienced, as paraphrased from her book:
1. Acquaintanceship. Every business relationship, peer-to-peer, or inside to outside, starts as an introduction and formal recognition of roles. Too many relationships never advance beyond this stage, resulting in poor communication, no cooperation, low trust, and low shared productivity. Moving forward to a workship is critical to the business.
2. Workship – Mentor. This is a productive working relationship where one party, more knowledgeable and/or experienced, takes an active role in fostering the advance of the other. When both parties contribute, it’s a powerful and positive relationship that benefits both careers, as well as the business.
3. Workship – Advocate. Unlike the mentor, who is a coach and teacher, the advocate inspires you to be the best that you can be. The best advocates do this because they care about you as a person, not because of personal aspirations. Your business will benefit from the increased productivity, high morale, and skill growth.
4. Workship – Trailblazer. The trailblazer is not overly competitive, but always is a few steps ahead and enjoys setting an example that you are inspired by, or motivated to follow. As a result, you are incented to be a trailblazer for others, which leads to stronger relationships throughout the team, and a stronger startup.
5. Workship – Communicator. The communicator is always researching the latest info, and keeps you in the loop on what’s happening in the business and why. Unlike the office gossip, information is always shared in a positive way, thus helping you to do your best at work and in your career. What goes around almost always comes around.
6. Friendship. There are three conditions that accompany the transition from a workship to a more intimate friendship; a shared wish to move to the next level, expanding the work-based relationship to non-work experiences; and sharing on issues requiring trust and discretion. Contrary to popular opinion, friendships are not inherently bad for business.
7. Romantic. When the relationship is appropriate, condoned by the company, and welcomed by both parties, it can be positive from a personal and even a work perspective. On the other hand, it can cause enormous emotional and legal problems, not to mention pain, suffering, and business failure. Proceed to this level with caution.
8. Foe. A foe relationship between two startup team members is always toxic to the business, so quick action from the top is required to save the business. Some foe relationships can be turned around to a productive workship or friendship, but all require first a shared wish by both parties to change. Workships and friendships can’t be forced.
In summary, entrepreneurs need to be especially perceptive and sensitive to business and personal relationships, since they normally work with small, closely-knit teams, on innovative and highly unstructured environments. The quality of relationships with customers, investors, partners, and suppliers can easily be their sustainable competitive advantage, or their death knell.
In my experience, even the best technology and business model won’t succeed without successful relationships. That’s why investors say they invest in people, not ideas. Starting from the top, make sure your startup has the right people, and the right relationships with each other. If you don’t, you too may soon find someone else sitting at your desk.