The Importance of Breakthrough Moments in Relationships

Regardless of what stage you’ve reached in a client relationship, you need to look for and seize what I call breakthrough moments. In examining the careers of great professionals, I have found there are always notable moments when they perform in extraordinary ways. The result is a major increase in their stature and in the respect and trust that clients place in them.

In my very first book, Clients for Life, my coauthor and I profiled a number of extraordinary historical advisors. We found that they all had moments when they forcefully demonstrated qualities such as great conviction, perceptive big picture thinking, and independence—or when they simply acted rapidly and decisively on their client’s behalf.

Here are two examples of such breakthrough moments:

1. George Marshall: A Junior Officer Stands up to the Legendary General Pershing

In October, 1917, George Marshall was a young colonel serving under Major General William L. Silbert at the front lines of battle in France. During a field inspection, the commander of the U.S. forces in Europe, General “Black Jack” Pershing, publicly chastised Marshall’s commanding officer for having conducted sloppy field maneuvers. Without hesitating, the young Marshall spoke up and vigorously defended Silbert, telling Pershing that his criticisms were unfair and his staff didn’t know what they were doing. When Pershing tried to defend himself, saying that he had had some difficulties in his headquarters organization, Marshall retorted, “Yes, General, but we have them every day and they have to be solved at night.” Instead of becoming angry, Perishing was immensely impressed with Marshall’s loyalty, conviction, and honesty in the face of authority, and he asked him to become his aide-de-camp after the war. Perishing, who was a legendary war hero, became a mentor to Marshall and greatly aided Marshall’s subsequent career in the army.

2. Harry Hopkins: A Social Worker Breaks Through

During Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office as president, he asked Harry Hopkins, whose training was as a social worker, to head the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which had been created to provide direct financial relief to regions of the country that had been impoverished by the Great Depression. Told by the president that his job was to “get relief to people who needed it,” Hopkins, whose new office didn’t even have a desk, immediately sent telegrams flying all over the country, and in his first few hours on the job he had already distributed millions in aid. Knowing that he was ruffling the feathers of various politicians, Hopkins said to a colleague, “I’m not going to last six months around here, so I’ll do as I please.” A newspaper article the next day began, “The half-billion dollars for direct relief of States won’t last a month if Harry L. Hopkins, new relief administrator, maintains the pace he set yesterday in disbursing more than $5 million during his first two hours in office.” Roosevelt instantly recognized that Hopkins—who viewed his job as identifying the President’s objectives and getting them accomplished as soon as possible—was no ordinary White House counselor. From that day onwards, he began increasingly to draw Hopkins into his most important initiatives and Hopkins became President Roosevelt’s most trusted advisor during his years at the White House.

Do you see the opportunity to break through in one of your existing relationships? Is there an opportunity to:

  • Act surprisingly fast on something?
  • Demonstrate integrity?
  • Show you are independent and will say “no” to your client even if it’s not in your interests to do so?
  • Challenge your client and push them to new heights? 
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