By Andrew Sobel
Ellen and Peter are both partners with large, well-known public accounting firms. They both went to good schools and have years of experience in auditing the financial statements of Fortune-500 companies.
That’s where their similarities end.
Ellen is a trusted advisor to the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of her largest client. In contrast, Peter’s principal client has been trying to cut the fee for his firm’s audit services. Sometimes, he even struggles to get on the CFO’s calendar.
Their differences illustrate one of the most fundamental laws of relationships. Mastering this law has the power to transform your role with clients, customers, and colleagues.
Over lunch Peter told me, “They’re driving me crazy. This client sees the audit as a commodity. They just want the lowest price.”
“What kind of relationship do you have with the CFO or his deputy?” I asked.
“Not much. They have basically delegated the management of the audit to their V.P. of finance, who reports to the CFO. He, in turn, has turned over the day-to-day relationship with us to their Director of Audit. I rarely see the CFO.”
“How would you describe your role with your clients?”
Peter looked at me like I was a bit nuts. “My role? My job is to get the audit completed on time and on schedule, and with an unqualified opinion.”
As our lunch progressed, a portrait of Peter emerged as what I call an “expert for hire.” Peter described a board dinner he was invited to. Peter admitted with candor that because the questions thrown at him were not focused on accounting alone, he had to stumble through his answers.
Peter is a great accountant. He knows his accounting rules and methodologies. The problem is, most top executives don’t want to spend much time on those particular details.
Ellen, on the other hand, is known to have an uncommon knack for building strong relationships with her clients at the most senior levels. I first met her when I interviewed her as part of a panel at a client offsite conference.
That day, I asked her what her secret is: “What makes you successful with clients?”
“It starts,” Ellen told the packed room, “with how you define your role with the client. My first responsibility is to achieve an unqualified audit opinion for my client, and to use all of our latest methodologies to help complete a successful audit. But I feel my mission is also to be a business advisor to my client. I help them manage their financial assets productively and reduce their risks. I’m a sounding board for new policies and strategies. At the very highest level, my job is to help my client achieve their growth and profitability goals with minimum risk.”
Ellen explained that when she takes on a new audit client, she tells the CFO that she wants to have a regularly scheduled lunch every two weeks. She admitted that she initially gets push back, but after insisting that all her significant clients follow this practice and find it valuable, her clients agree.
Ellen continued, “After a couple of these lunches, my clients are totally engaged—they love the interaction. I learn about the CFO’s priorities and goals, share best practices from other clients, discuss strategy, share issues we are seeing in their field operations, and I provide intelligence about their organization that other advisors can’t see because they are not close enough to the business.”
“The lunches are only part of the picture. All of my exchanges with my clients are framed in the context of their big-picture goals—their growth, profitability, and innovation. I don’t want them to see our audit as a necessary evil. Rather, I want them to see me as a strategic advisor who does a terrific job each year getting their audit done smoothly and without complications.”
Ellen and Peter are real people. The dramatically different roles they play with their clients highlight an important Law of Relationships: Become part of your clients’ growth and profits, and they’ll never get enough of you.
If you can show how what you do directly supports your client’s growth, their profitability, and the reduction of their risks, you’ll harness the power of this law.
By Andrew Sobel
I get a lot of requests. Very rarely—almost never—the person writing me asks a simple question: Is there anything I can help you with? Those get my attention. Although the last one like that was years ago.
One morning, while scanning my email, two in particular caught my eye. They illustrated the importance of investing in your relationships with people before you need help from them.
The first one started with, “I hope you will agree to help me launch my new book. I’d like to ask you to write a five-star review on Amazon.com.”
While I enjoy lending a hand to other authors, I’d never met nor heard of this person. He wanted me to commit significant time to help him, but he hadn’t laid the groundwork for his request.
He had never reviewed any of my books, commented on my blog or website, or subscribed to any of my newsletters. Turned out, he was not even a friend of a friend.
The second email was from a fellow I attended graduate school with. I hadn’t heard from him in 30 years. He was starting a business and wanted to know if I would invest. The email was lengthy and contained his entire business plan.
While I respect that this former classmate had a connection with me, he knew nothing about my goals in life, the state of my business, or my finances. He had no idea if I even had any interest in the service he hoped to offer.
I heard a very different story on a Southwest Air flight to Los Angeles.
The gentleman I was sitting next to and I began chatting. He must have been six feet six inches tall. He was in his late 40s or early 50s. He introduced himself as “Petri Byrd.” I did not recognize him. He told me he was an actor in Los Angeles.
I asked him a power question that I often use with people who are well into their careers. “How did you get your start in acting?” His answer was not what I expected. This is what Petri Byrd told me:
“I was raised in Brooklyn, New York. I started my career as a bailiff, later moving over to the Family Court Division. My judge was named Judy Sheindlin. I developed a very good, strong relationship with her during that time. I helped her run a tight ship in her courtroom.”
“Then what happened? What about the acting?”
“I got my criminal justice degree from John Jay College. Then, around 1990, my wife and I decided to move to the west coast for a fresh start. I knew that my former judge from New York had moved out to Los Angeles herself, and was looking into starting up a TV show. I called and left a voice message. “Judy, I still look pretty good in uniform. If you ever need a bailiff, let me know.’ I figured nothing would come of it, but it was worth a try.”
It hit me. “You mean Judge Judy? As in the TV show?”
“Yeah, exactly,” Petri said with nonchalance. Petri was just an easygoing, regular guy. No big ego.
“I got a call the next day from Judy. She told me she was looking for a bailiff. I met with her, and I got the job on the spot. I had never acted before. It didn’t matter. I knew how to do it for real! I’ve been her bailiff for over ten years. I’m the longest running bailiff in court TV history. It’s opened up lots of other opportunities for me.”
Every day, millions of people watch Judge Judy and her bailiff, Petri Byrd, on TV. It is the most popular show on daytime television in the United States. Number one!
Imagine if instead, the message on Judge Judy’s phone had been, “Hi, I’m Petri Byrd and I’d like a job as your bailiff on your new TV show. I know you only have one bailiff spot open, and over 3,000 people have applied, but I’m the one. You’ve never heard of me. You’ve never met me. I’ve never done a thing for you. I’ve never followed your work. But I want your help.”
Petri Byrd’s story highlights an essential relationship principle: Build your network before you need it.
Invest in other people before you ask them for anything. Cultivate your relationships over time, the same way you would tend a garden. Don’t be a freeloader who sees their network as a piggy bank.
By Andrew Sobel
(Note: This true story, told by my co-author Jerry Panas, was published as a chapter in our book Power Relationships)
In Oswego, Kansas, people are mighty proud of their twelve-bed community hospital. There are other hospitals in larger neighboring cities. But people in Oswego wouldn’t think of going anywhere for their healthcare other than their local hospital.
One person told me, “We get here whatever you can get at Mayo. Except the staff is friendlier here.” Well, that may be a stretch. But that’s how folks in Oswego feel about their hospital.
Mary Jane Cummins is the Development Director at the hospital. That means she raises money for the hospital. She splits her time between that and admitting patients. The Development Office is in the basement of the hospital, in a corner tucked away in a long corridor. You need to really want to get to Mary Jane’s office in order to make the trip.
Mary Jane doesn’t have any training in raising funds. But she’s passionate about the hospital and totally dedicated. That outstrips experience every time. For over a decade, Sam Anderson comes by her office every year. It’s usually in October. He calls ahead to make certain Mary Jane will be around. It’s obvious they have a strong relationship. He likes her (everyone does). She likes him.
In he walks. Bib overalls and a plaid shirt. As far as Mary Jane can remember, it’s the same bib overalls and plaid shirt all these years. She thinks it may be his dress-up to come to town from his farm.
“Mary Jane, here’s my twenty-five dollars. I wish it could be more. I love the hospital. I hope this will help some.” They hug and Sam leaves. He’s been giving the same amount, twenty-five dollars, for all these years.
In December of each year, Mary Jane bakes bread for her “special people.” Sam’s gift is one of the smallest at the hospital, but to Mary Jane, she knows Sam stretches to make it. He is one of her special people. Her visits with the bread are always a few days before Christmas. She travels all over Oswego to deliver the homemade bread. And usually last on the route is Sam’s farmhouse.
Fast forward, as they say. This last year, Sam lost his soul mate. It was in August. He and Agnes had been married for 57 years. Sam didn’t make his regular October visit with his gift. Mary Jane called him several times, but never said anything about the gift.
Now it’s Christmas. Even though he didn’t make a gift, Mary Jane bakes Sam a loaf of bread. She adds some cookies to the package. She drives out to the farm. They talk for a long time. She holds his hand, tells him how desperately sorry she is about his losing Agnes.
Mary Jane is so pleased she has made the trip. She’s heard Sam has become a recluse since Agnes died. He doesn’t leave the house. It’s time to leave. She gives him the bread and cookies, along with a long hug. It has been a love-filled visit.
“Just a minute, Mary Jane, before you get ready to leave. I have something I’ve been planning to give you.” He leaves for the bedroom.
Before continuing this story, I am going to give you the Law that explains the bond between Mary Jane and Sam. It’s this: A selfless motive creates a powerful relationship. It’s when neither party is trying to gain something. A pure motivation is the most wonderful catalyst for building relationships.
Now back to my story. You remember that Mary Jane is ready to leave. Sam asks her to wait a moment. He goes into his bedroom. In a few minutes, he comes out with two huge shopping bags. He staggers under the weight. He tells Mary Jane that he will help her carry the bags to the car.
“Agnes and I decided five or so years ago we were going to make a trip. In all our years, we have never been outside of Oswego— except for our honeymoon in Topeka.
“We started saving coins and some spare dollar bills whenever we could. We really scratched. There was never much left over. The last time I counted, there was over $2,000.
“A couple times a month, we would skip dinner. That way, we could throw a couple extra bucks into our get-away bag.
“I guess I’m not going to be able now to make that trip with Agnes. I’d like the money instead to go to the hospital.”
They hug. Cry. And finally say goodbye. He shouts as the car passes by, “And thanks for the bread. Agnes always loved it.”
Isn’t it inspiring to be in the presence of someone whose intentions are pure and who gives freely and selflessly?
By Andrew Sobel
The US presidential campaign is now in full swing. I won’t comment on this campaign, but I will describe something fascinating that happened in a very important presidential race from the last century. It illustrates the power of self-disclosure and the importance of what I call “emotional resonance” in relationships.
It was September 23, 1952, a few weeks from the US presidential election. Former General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Republican nominee, had chosen a bright, up-and-coming young Senator named Richard Nixon to be his vice presidential running mate.
But, a growing controversy had erupted over Nixon’s use of campaign funds. In this case, Nixon was innocent of the charges. However, sensing the tide had turned against his running mate, even Eisenhower was pressuring Nixon to quit. The situation could very well have been the end of Nixon’s political career.
Instead, Nixon chose a high-risk strategy: He decided to go directly to the American people on television and plead his case. He sought to shift the court of opinion from the media to the people themselves. 60 million Americans watched as he began the speech of his life.
“I come before you tonight as a candidate for the Vice Presidency and as a man whose honesty and integrity has been questioned,” he began. “The best and only answer to a smear or to an honest misunderstanding of the facts is to tell the truth. And that’s why I’m here tonight.”
Nixon went on to provide a great deal of information about his campaign finances. He also shared intimate details about life. He talked about his wife, Pat, who was there—only seen when the camera zoomed out—sitting near her husband’s desk, looking at him adoringly.
“I was born in 1913,” he continued. “Our family was one of modest circumstances, and most of my early life was spent working in a grocery store. It’s all the family had.”
“I worked my way through college and law school. And then in 1940, I married Pat, probably the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Finally, the coup de grace that solidified the emotional resonance of Nixon’s speech: Nixon admitted his family received a gift from a political admirer. But it wasn’t what people were expecting to hear:
“We did get a gift, a Cocker Spaniel puppy. And our little girl Tricia, named it ‘Checkers.’ And you know, the kids love the dog, and I just want to say this, regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”
He ended his speech with an act of extreme vulnerability. He turned his fate over to the viewers, saying, “Wire and write the Republican National Committee whether you think I should stay on [the ticket] or whether I should get off. And whatever their decision is, I will abide by it.”
The reaction to Nixon’s emotional appeal was extraordinary. Enthusiastic crowds surged around him at the entrance to his hotel. Eventually, over four million cards, letters, and telegrams were sent in response to the speech. They ran 75 to one in favor of Nixon remaining on the ticket with Eisenhower.
Historians say the speech cemented Nixon’s support from middle Americans for the rest of his political career. With doubts about Nixon put to rest, he and Eisenhower swept the presidential election and the Republicans took over the White House in January 1953.
Nixon’s “Checkers” speech demonstrated an essential principle of Relationships: Vulnerability is power. When you are emotionally vulnerable, it allows people to connect with you. They root for you. They want to help you. It can create a powerful bond. Studies have shown that self-disclosure is a major driver of likeability.
But do we also value emotional vulnerability at work? Can it improve your professional relationships? Sure. Here’s an example:
A large corporation told a client I advise that they would not renew a large, three-year contract. My client traveled to see them and spent a whole morning—to no avail—trying to persuade the company to renew the contract.
My client’s COO, overwhelmed with frustration, wrote an email to the company that had pushed them aside. He reviewed the history of the relationship and reiterated his commitment to address all of the issues that had been raised. At the end of the email, he wrote four simple words:
“Can we start over?”
The next morning, the reply he received was, “We’ve reconsidered. Yes, let’s start over.” They awarded my client a new, three-year contract that was larger than the first one.
If you don’t reveal yourself, your relationships will never reach the levels of trust and intimacy that are needed for deep friendship at home and partnership at work.
By Andrew Sobel
Steve Pfeiffer had just stepped down as chairman of one of the largest law firms in the United States, Fulbright & Jaworski (now Norton Rose Fulbright).
Elected and reelected three times by his partners, he served three terms as chairman over ten years. Why was Steve Pfeiffer reelected so many times? Leadership. He’s smart and has excellent judgment, humility and a deft, intuitive touch with people. He knows how to get people aligned around a vision and a strategy.
His accomplishments are numerous and impressive. And yet, unlike some very successful people, it’s never gone to his head. On a trip we took on the Amtrak Acela from Washington DC to New York, he spent as much time chatting with the porter on the Amtrak train as he did talking to the CEO of one of his clients on his cellphone.
Nearly 40 years later, Steve recounted a story that explains much about who he is today and about the real meaning of the famous parable of the Good Samaritan.
“I’m sitting in my parent’s living room. It’s 9 pm and there’s a knock on the door, strange for this time of night.
“The loud knock takes me by surprise. I’m unsure if I should answer.
“I wait and listen. Another knock. Finally, I open it. Standing in front of me is a young, African-American man in a blue Air Force uniform. He is standing erect and tall. His uniform is pressed to perfection. I have never seen this young man before.
“The young man introduces himself as Clancy Williams, and asks for Ben Pfeiffer, my dad.
“I call for my father. When he comes, a big smile breaks out on his face. He welcomes Clancy like a long-lost son. They talk animatedly about his Air Force career and how his mother is doing. I watch their interaction, and I’m puzzled. This young man doesn’t just know my dad, he treats him almost like he is his own father! There’s an intimate quality to their interactions. Yet, I had never heard his name. They talk and hug, and after an hour or so Clancy Williams leaves.
“Later that night, I learned who he was. A woman who worked in the building where my father had an accounting practice was a single mother. She had very limited means. One of her children was Clancy.
“My dad helped her out and took an interest in her children. When Clancy was a senior in high school, Mrs. Williams asked my father to speak with him about his future. My father apparently told him he either had to go to college or enter the military to get some experience. Clancy chose the military.
“As I got older I learned that my father often helped those around him, whenever he could, in any way he could. He never publicized or talked about what he was doing.
“As a Christian I know the story of the good Samaritan from Luke Chapter 10 in the New Testament. After Jesus teaches his followers to ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ a lawyer asks Him, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ Jesus answers by telling the story of the Samaritan who helps the injured man on the side of the road. My father didn’t talk about this stuff, he just did it.”
What modern readers of this story often don’t realize is that the Samaritans were loathed by the Israelites at the time—they were considered unclean and untouchable. To risk your life to help a Samaritan on the side of the road went way beyond the call of normal duty. It dramatically reinforces the point of the story: Everyone is our neighbor and deserves love and help when in need.
After hearing Steve’s story, I understood why he is as friendly and comfortable with the Amtrak porter as with a CEO of a large corporation. Why he has quietly mentored a handful of young men from fatherless homes, helping with the cost of their education. Why he hosted Wesleyan graduates from African nations at his house, until they could get settled in their careers. Why he helped a young girl from Sierra Leone get a visa and travel to the United States to be treated for horrific damage she suffered while undergoing a forced circumcision. Why he serves on the board of directors for Project Hope, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Africa America Institute, and many others.
He summed it up for me in very simple words—giving us a powerful relationship principle: “My father taught me that you should always be looking for ways to help the people around you. There’s always something you can do, even if it’s a very small thing. There’s always someone around you who has a need.”
By Andrew Sobel