Reframing Work and Life #4: The Intimacy Matrix For many years I have avoided the topic of technology and relationships. Partly, because often the “hot” technology this year becomes a dinosaur next year…yes, I still remember MySpace, which was ...

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Technology and Relationships: Where Should You Spend Your Time?

By Andrew Sobel

Reframing Work and Life #4: The Intimacy Matrix

For many years I have avoided the topic of technology and relationships. Partly, because often the “hot” technology this year becomes a dinosaur next year…yes, I still remember MySpace, which was going to take over the world. And partly, because the basic ingredients of trusted relationships have just not been significantly altered by email, texting, and social media. That said, technology at its best can be a very effective enabler of relationships, and we should use it. It can also be a great enabler of online cruelty, bullying, and shaming, however, by ordinary people who hide behind anonymous handles. Oh, and an egregious time-waster if you’re spending hours on social media every day…

But here, let’s focus on tech’s positive benefits.

To frame the discussion, consider two dimensions. First, are we talking about many shallow relationships, or a few intimate ones? (it’s not a false choice because you can’t be a trusted colleague or trusted advisor to hundreds of people–by definition these will be relatively shallow relationships). Second, are we using high-touch/low-tech methods or low touch/high tech means to connect? The graphic, below, sets this out. And voilà, there are naturally four distinct quadrants where you may have both professional and personal relationships.

The big question is: Where on this matrix are you spending your time today? And which quadrants should you focus on going forward?



We all have lots of digital contacts. These may be people who you are connected to on LinkedIn or FaceBook; who subscribe to your newsletter, blog, Twitter feed, YouTube channel, or Instagram feed; or with whom you have interacted in one of dozens of other forums and websites. These COULD be important contacts for you, depending on your job. If you are an M&A partner in a law firm, these types of contacts aren’t for the most part super relevant. If you’re an author or salesperson trying to build a following, then these contacts can be important sources of new business.

But don’t kid yourself. It’s one thing to use LinkedIn Sales Navigator in a targeted way to help you connect with a c-suite executive who could be a major buyer of your solutions. But, quite another kettle of fish if you think, just because you have a lot of social media contacts, that you’re rich in the relationships you need to succeed as a professional.

Synergy: You can often get to know someone initially through a digital contact, and when you then meet in person you move over to the Lower-Right Quadrant—the relationship is already out of the starting blocks. In this case, online technologies are an accelerant. You could also develop one of these contacts into a more in-depth online exchange with someone, over time, and build a “Digital Friendship” in the Upper-Left Quadrant.

Verdict: Most professionals shouldn’t spend a lot of time in the Contact Quadrant, and the time you do spend should be very focused and targeted towards a specific objective: building eventual PERSONAL relationships with a handful of executives who could become clients or some other valuable person in your inner network of the “critical few.”


These are individuals you have met face-to-face. This can occur at networking events, conferences, industry forums, through alumni networks, and so on. These connections are usually a step above a “contact” but they are still just potential trusted relationships.

Synergy: Some of these personal acquaintances can move up and become important, trusted relationships for you.

Verdict: It’s great to get out and meet people in person. But are you meeting the right kinds? These should be individuals who can:

  • Buy your services
  • Introduce you to buyers
  • Help you with your expertise development or thought leadership in some way
  • Somehow collaborate with you in selling and delivering your work


I do think it’s possible to build deeper, more intimate relationships online through repeated interactions. Yes, some people have met their future spouses online. And I have had (occasionally) extended exchanges with executives who have eventually become clients of mine. But let’s not kid ourselves. A purely online connection, no matter how good it is, isn’t the same as an in-person relationship characterized by a high degree of personal rapport, trust, and mutual respect.

Synergy: Because you’ve already gotten to know each other online, a Digital Friend can rapidly become part of your trusted success network in the Upper-Right Quadrant once you actually meet them in person or possibly by phone.  

Verdict: It’s ok to spend some time on these deeper digital relationships, but in general I think they can only serve you—on a professional level—in a limited way. I wouldn’t be devoting a lot of time and effort to this quadrant either.


If you’re in a business-to-business market, the highest percentage of your relationship-building time should be spent on a few dozen key relationships that are found in the Upper-Right Quadrant. In fact I would say 50-80% of your relational investments should go here. I peg the number of people in this quadrant at 10 to 25, depending on where you are in your career. If you’re just starting out, you should focus on developing a small handful of these, may be 10 or 12, in different categories. If you’re well into your career, then concentrating on 20 or 25 key relationships is more appropriate. In my 37-year career in consulting, I can point to literally two dozen relationships that have been absolutely foundational to my success—and hundreds of successful professionals have told me the same thing during my research on this topic.

These “critical few”—what I call your Success Network—are people who trust you. Who care about you. Who will vouch for you and refer you. These individuals can truly power your career success. And, you can and should help them succeed as well.

Synergy: These are multiplier relationships. These individuals will always be willing to introduce you to their own networks.

Verdict: Don’t waste your time reading everyone’s tweets. Your most precious relationship capital lies in this quadrant. Pay attention to it. Nurture and cultivate it.


Choose Ambitious, Bold Clients

By Andrew Sobel

Reframing Work and Life #3: The Client Aspiration Matrix

There is an unreservedly important but often ignored quality that you should always look for in your clients. It is called ambition. Boldness is another way of putting it. Many executives simply want to do a “good job” while maintaining the status quo. Usually, but not always, they are not very satisfying clients. You will have lots of good ideas and proposals for these clients, but you will often be disappointed by their unwillingness to make even small changes, let alone bold moves.

It can be exhilarating, on the other hand, to work with an ambitious, bold client. They want to hear all the good ideas you can provide. They are impatient to improve their business. Having a strong bias for action, they compress the time between setting strategy and implementing it. You feel a sense of accomplishment, because your work is having a tangible, positive impact.

Ambition, however, is usually tempered by Tenure. Executives who are new in their roles are often more open to advice, new ideas, and fresh ways of doing things. Executives at the end of their tenure, however, are often less open to outside advice and less willing to take new risks. This is especially true as they approach the end of their careers—a frequent phenomenon these days as many Baby-Boomers reach their mid-sixties. Remember, the midpoint group of the 77-million strong baby-boomer generation just turned 64.

This graphic illustrates the relationship between Tenure and Ambition, and identifies four distinct positions when it comes to ambition and boldness:

Incremental Change. I find that executives who have modest ambitions and are risk-averse—when early in their tenure in a key role—are only willing to undertake very slow, incremental change. Be careful about how hard you push them. Here are some ideas for how to proceed:

  • Build up a lot of trust before trying to get them to change faster than their natural tempo
  • Choose your battles—otherwise they will feel harassed
  • Be explicit about the risks you see, and point out steps they can take to minimize the downside of new strategies and changes in the organization.
  • Be patient

Caretaking. This can be a very frustrating type of client. A risk-averse leader, who had modest ambitions to begin with, becomes even more so at the end of their tenure. Consider these approaches:

  • Make appeals to their legacy—what mark do they want to leave?
  • Encourage them to enable, empower, and support their team to be more active in making changes (then it’s not all on their shoulders)
  • Ask them to help transition your relationship to their successor

Transformation. When a leader is in Transformation mode, they may sound quite critical of past performance and organizational effectiveness. Early in their tenure, they can be sponges for new ideas and best practices. My suggestions:

  • These executives know what they want, even if they are not sure how to get there. Don’t be overly directive—rather, share the specifics of how the best companies and organizations have accomplished similar goals. Your client will quickly decide and ask you to help them move forward.
  • Invest to develop ideas for them. In every conversation, you should be sharing one or two new ideas or perspectives on things they can do to move even faster and more effectively.

Legacy-Sealing. At the end of their tenure in a leadership position, even the most ambitious executives usually have less motivation to continue to make big changes. More likely, they want to consolidate their gains. Some things to consider when working with them:

  • Discuss their legacy with them. What do they think will ensure their impact is enduring?
  • Help them with ideas on how to solidify the positive impact they have had. This could mean coaching and developing the next generation of leaders; implementing systems and processes that will help institutionalize the new practices; and so on.
  • Be curious about what’s next for them and be a sounding board if appropriate. What else do they want to accomplish? What do they have a real passion for?

Reflect on your own clients—or for that matter, your boss or a colleague who may fit into one of these four quadrants. Where are they in this matrix? What does their position tell you about how you can be helpful and add value?


How to Reframe Client Problems

By Andrew Sobel

Reframing Work & Life #2: Putting client problems in a new light

The physicist Albert Einstein reputedly said that if he had one hour to solve a problem on which his life depended, he would spend 55 minutes studying and defining it, and 5 minutes solving it.

Often, a client (or, your manager or a colleague) presents a problem they need to be solved, but the problem is defined incorrectly or too narrowly. Sometimes, you need to work with your client to reframe the problem. One client asked me to help them reorganize their company, but the real issue lay in the poor definition of roles and responsibilities. Another wanted a culture study done, but the real issue was a lack of a coherent strategy and shrinking market share. Even if the problem is described accurately, the best solution may be broader and more holistic than the client envisioned.

Here’s an easy-to-remember framework to help think through and—if necessary–reframe a client’s presenting issue:

Let’s briefly look at each reframing opportunity:


First, you may need to reframe upstream into Strategy. Try to define the problem in the context of the company’s overarching goals and strategy. You can ask questions like:

  • Which key strategic priorities does this support right now?
  • What needs to be done to ensure this is seen as aligning with your most important, enterprise-wide initiatives?
  • Can you tell me more about the overall context for this program? Why now?

By reframing into Strategy, you connect your specific project to the organization’s higher-level strategies and goals. You will ultimately then design a more complete engagement that has a high degree of fit with the strategy.


Second, you can reframe downstream into Implementation. Client executives need to turn ideas, solutions, and products into value for their business—quickly. If you’re being asked to do something for a client, and they have not carefully thought through how it will be fully operationalized, then you need to remind them of the full journey they are on and explore it with them. You should ask questions such as:

  • Who is responsible for the eventual implementation of this?
  • Have you established measures of success? How will you know it’s working?
  • In the past, what have you done to ensure a solution like this gets used and implemented properly?
  • From your perspective, what are the implementation risks? How can they be mitigated?

Enterprise-Wide Implications

Third, you can reframe across the Enterprise. There are vast interdependencies in any complex organization, but middle managers are often in silos where their point of view is local and their compensation rewards them for success in their particular pond. Yet, if you do something for HR or Finance or Operations, it will inevitably have knock-on effects across into other functions and business areas.

One of my clients discovered this when they implemented a new CRM (customer relationship management) system. To work effectively, it required changes in behavior across many different parts of the organization, not just from the salesforce. As a result it took nearly a year longer than expected to make it fully functional.

To surface these enterprise-wide interdependencies, you have to ask a lot of questions about how your solution or product will interact with other functions and business units.

Change Management

The first three strategies take you up, down, and across the organization. The fourth strategy makes you take a Change Management or “process” perspective around any major new intervention, product, or solution. This is an additional area to explore with your client that will inform and possibly enlarge the scope of what you do.

There are (at least!) five major dimensions to Change Management that should be considered:

  1. Stakeholder alignment and management.Who are the key stakeholders, from within the area you’re working, but also from other parts of the company? How should this group be communicated to and managed? How can you ensure their continued support?
  2. Technology and systems. This is a hugely important and complex area–many corporations invest well over $1 billion a year on IT. You may know little about technology and information systems, but it behooves you to ask some basic questions and ensure your client’s systems will support, not obstruct, your solution.
  3. Management process. This comprises the decision-making protocols, supporting systems, and other processes that help you manage the area you are working in. For a client of mine who wanted to create an account management structure, this was a big problem. The new structure was going to be toothless because the decision-making authority and information flows about client relationships were going to remain firmly with the traditional geographic heads.
  4. People and skills. This is one of the primary concerns of leaders—building talent across the organization—but not always of middle management who are more focused on their individual contribution. You should ask: What are the implications of our work for the people and skills the client will need, today and in the future?
  5. Organization roles and responsibilities. Questions you might ask include: Do your current organizational roles support an initiative like this? Are you considering changes in your roles and responsibilities, either to better enable the success of this program or for other reasons?

The next time your client—or someone you work with—presents a problem or challenge, use this simple four-direction framework to make sure the problem is defined in the most effective way.


Four Types of Power Questions

By Andrew Sobel

Reframing Work & Life #1: The Power Questions Matrix

Jerry Panas and I coined the term “Power Questions” in our book of the same title. Somewhat to our amazed delight, it went on to become a global best-seller that has been translated into 21 languages. Power Questions, put simply, are open-ended questions that engage the other person in a thought-provoking conversation. They uncover the real issues that need to be discussed. They help you get to the root cause of important problems and dilemmas. They reframe the conversation in new, transformative ways. They surprise and, often, delight.

While there are many different types of Power Questions, the following matrix sets out four important areas in which you should be asking thoughtful questions. Whether you’re talking to a client, your manager, a colleague—or your friends and family—these four question quadrants will, together, yield a lode of pure gold.There are two key dimensions or axes that define the four quadrants. First, are you focusing on implementation—the details—or on the big picture? So that’s one distinction. With a colleague, that might mean talking about how they are going to handle a tough project they’ve just been assigned—implementation—versus discussing their how that project fits into the company’s strategy—the big picture.

The second distinction is this: Are you in the realm of the rational or the emotional? So with a client, that might mean discussing how your technology solution can help them improve customer service—a rational question—versus asking what concerns or fears they may have are about using a new solution, which delves into the emotional, or personal realm.

In the lower left Execution quadrant, you’ll ask rational questions about implementation: “How are you going to do that” or “What is your timing?” and so on.

But often, you also need to move up to the Strategy quadrant in order to really understand the context for what the other person is trying to accomplish. If a client asks for help clarifying organizational roles and responsibilities, you would follow up with a question or two in the Strategy quadrant to clarify the backdrop to the request.

In the Strategy quadrant, you might ask questions about higher-level goals: “Why do you want to do that?” or “What are your most important priorities for this year?”

But remember, we are most alive and animated when our emotions are engaged, so you must also understand the emotional or personal side of the issue. In the upper-right Dreams quadrant you might ask questions like, “What legacy do you hope to leave?” or “What are you working on that you’re most excited about?”

Finally, in the lower right Fears quadrant you need to ask questions about concerns, anxieties, and frustrations—things that could get in the way of dreams and aspirations. For example, “What parts of your implementation program have been most frustrating?” Or, “What part of your job is most challenging right now?”

For most of us, it feels safer to stick to the Strategy and Execution quadrants. But, the most extraordinary conversations can develop from questions on the right side of the matrix. During 2018 I spent much of the year developing a new eLearning program called Building Relationships That Matter. One night, I previewed the Power Questions module with a young friend. A week later, he called me, and said, “You know, I used some of those dreams questions in a discussion with my wife last night, and—well, we had an absolutely amazing, heartfelt conversation that drew some really important issues to the surface for the very first time.”

It really works.


How to Manage Small or Transactional Clients

By Andrew Sobel

Small and/or transactional clients can pose many problems. In fact, dealing with these types of clients is a vexing issue for many companies. Here’s why:

Small Clients:

  • Are costly to service—they can use up senior time (partners, senior executives) with little return
  • Often have limited budgets, and any one small client can only make a modest contribution to total revenue
  • Tend to refer you to other small clients
  • May strain to pay your fees—they may be used to using little-known, local suppliers who are much less expensive than you are

Transactional Clients:

  • Are an unreliable source of revenue—it’s hard to plan and grow a business around them
  • Can have high selling costs, because you are starting from scratch for each sale (this is not always true, but it can be)
  • May think of you more as a vendor than a trusted advisor. If so, they will keep you at arms-length, and not share their real agenda and plans

Border collie watching sheep (small clients?)

YET…both types of clients often contribute significantly to revenue and therefore to fixed overheads. So it’s not as simple as just getting rid of them. If you did that all at once you might literally go bankrupt unless you simultaneously reduced your cost base dramatically.

Of course, on the upside, a very successful small client may grow and become a large, steady client—your small client could…possibly be the next FaceBook or Amazon (although honestly, the odds are pretty low, and you probably know now whether there’s potential or not…). A small client could be a training ground for more junior staff—for example, investment banks often have their less-experienced staff deal with mid-cap companies.

So what do you do when your growth and profitability are being diminished by a lot of small clients, or clients who are transactional and treat you like a vendor?

Here are six possible strategies—and the right one may combine several of these:

  1. Renegotiate the relationship. Renegotiate the relationship itself—explain how you would like to work with the client differently going forward—so as to better meet their needs and have a greater impact on their business (for example, for a transactional client, propose a more collaborative relationship and a closer working arrangement where you address important, ongoing issues not just one-off problems that may be symptoms not root causes ( “go big or go home”).
  2. Renegotiate your fee structure. Raise/restructure your fees and pricing so that the relationship is acceptably profitable for you.
  3. Delegate. Delegate the relationship to more junior but competent staff.
  4. Change your delivery model. Restructure your service delivery model and lower your delivery costs so you can more efficiently and profitably service these types of clients.
  5. Create a different service offering for them. This is similar to number (4), but goes further. Under this scenario you would develop a service or product that is specially designed for smaller clients, for example, rather than trying to provide the same solutions you are selling to larger corporations.
  6. Terminate. Terminate the relationship, possibly referring the client to a new, more suitable provider.

It goes without saying that you need to clearly define your strategy and your target client market—otherwise, you will end up pursuing anything that moves. Just as good advisors are able to say “No” to their clients, you have to be able to say “No” to yourself—to clients and investments that are “off strategy” for your business. If you don’t focus, you may dilute yourself into mediocrity.

Remember: A lion cannot live on a diet of mouse alone–it can’t catch enough of them! Too many small or transactional clients will defocus you from building the flagship relationships that sustain your practice and your firm.


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