The Essential Starting Point for any Relationship

Your starting point for building a powerful relationship is always the other person’s agenda. An agenda embraces someone’s goals, but it’s even broader.

To highlight how important this is, let me introduce you to Richard Major. Richard taught me a lesson I’ll never forget about understanding agendas.

Richard is a senior executive at his company, where he’s worked for 25 years. He manages the very largest client accounts. The whales. He is not just good at what he does; he is one of the best I’ve ever met. His stats prove this – he ranks number one in his firm for revenue production. And has for years.

If you met Richard, at first blush you may think he lacks some of the finer relationship skills. He doesn’t relish small talk, for example. He’s exceptionally bright, but you might not think he’s the most smooth talker—sometimes he interjects “you know” or “uh” in his sentences. But don’t be put off by that. He has an unrivalled instinct when it comes to building relationships with his clients, and a keen eye for spotting opportunities for them.

While I was consulting with his company on a revenue growth initiative, Richard taught me an essential, career-changing lesson.

We were sitting in a big conference room, and what Richard referred to as a “corporate honcho,” at the head of the table, was interrogating everyone about how much more growth they could squeeze out of their client relationships. He asked each executive the same questions:

“What’s your stretch revenue goal for this client?”

“What additional services can you sell?”

“What’s keeping you from accomplishing your goal?”

When Honcho asked Richard, however, he met an immovable object. “So, what’s your revenue goal for the TCR Corporation next year?” Honcho asked him.

Richard’s terse response to the first question was, “I don’t have one. It will depend on what the client needs.” His reply to the second question was similar: “I don’t know yet. We follow the client’s agenda.” He added, “It’s all about serving their agenda of critical priorities, needs, and goals.”

During the coffee break, Richard pulled me aside. “I meant what I said. TCR wasn’t even a client ten years ago. And now it’s the second largest account in the firm—over $30 million a year in revenue.”

The next day, Richard and I had lunch at a local sandwich shop. It was just the two of us. No corporate Honcho—he was back at the head office interrogating more people about their revenue targets!

I asked Richard a simple question: “Why are you so successful with clients?” I wanted to know his secret.

Richard was usually pretty serious, but now he looked at me, exhaled, and smiled. “Let me show you something.” He set down his Diet Coke, and reached for something in his pocket. It was a small, folded sheet of paper. It was wrinkled and creased. It had obviously been opened and re-folded many times. Richard slowly unfolded it.

I couldn’t quite see it from across the table, but it looked like a list of names with some scrawls next to each name. Some words had been crossed out, and new ones written in next to the crossed out sections. Different pens had obviously been used at different times.

“You see this piece of paper?” Richard asked me. He held the sheet out towards me. “This is a list of the names of my top clients. Next to each name I have listed that executive’s agenda—his or her most important priorities.” He paused. I felt as though every other diner in the restaurant had stopped eating and turned to look at us, waiting to hear Bill’s secret.

“My job in life…is to help each one of them to accomplish their agenda. Period. That’s my singular focus.”

Richard’s mission was not to deliver interesting consulting projects—it was to help his clients achieve their most important goals.

Your relationship-building journey must start with the other person’s agenda. Not yours. Theirs. Whether you’re talking about a client, a colleague, your boss, or a friend, your first job is to understand that person’s agenda. Do you know what is important to them—really important—right now? Only when you know this will you clearly see how you can help them and add value to the relationship.

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