A Changing World Demands Partnership: Consultant ’s Viewpoint

Building relationships, communicating needs and doing it right the first time bring long-lasting results and consistent profitability.

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We live in a time of almost constant change. Many of us have difficulty remembering when there were only three channels on TV, when computers ran with punch cards, and when the phone was something we ran to answer. All of us, whether we know it or not, are affected daily by the changing world in which we live and work. I am reading a terrific book that discusses these changes: “Powerhouse Partners: A Blueprint for Building Organizational Cultures for Breakaway Results,” by Jim Krefft and Stephen Dent.

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Krefft and Dent argue that we live and work in a fundamentally different world from the one our grandparents experienced. In just a generation — some 40 years or so — we have gone through what amounts to a wholesale revolution. They argue that our world has been transformed from the 19th-century economic model rooted in scarcity, industry and division of labor to an age of information and connectivity. In order to contend and succeed in today's world, organizations must change, people must change.

Modern American industry was built on the command-and-control model. Traditionally, business was a top-down enterprise grounded in self-interest, self-reliance and the “I-win, you-lose” mentality. It was resistant to change and trusting of no one. Firms built organizations that integrated horizontally and vertically, and made their profits by manufacturing and producing products from scarce resources. Today's strong economies are driven by ideas, information and services. Krefft and Dent claim that in order to compete and survive in this new world, organizations must provide leadership to create cultures rooted in connectivity, actively encouraging new competencies. Business cultures need to create partnering organizations that function like organisms grounded in broad interests, comfortable with change, future-oriented, interdependent, with skill sets geared toward win-win solutions. They argue that task achievement alone will not propel organizations to succeed. Human potential and creativity are the keys to fundamental growth. Building relationships, communicating needs and doing it right the first time bring long-lasting results and consistent profitability. “The only way to work smarter, not harder, in today's overloaded mega-, hyper-connected society is through knowledge-sharing,” they argue.

Krefft and Dent say this way of thinking needs to start at the top — where leadership sits. Smart leaders are those who create connected cultures: They lead by example, treat associates/employees as trusted partners, and hire and promote those with partnering skill sets. They encourage an open workplace in design and feel, create mentoring opportunities, tell the truth, and provide incentives for partnering behavior. Smart leaders look to partner with customers and clients by building a culture focused on staying a step ahead of their markets, addressing the deeper needs of customers and adding value beyond what is expected.

Of course, thousands of successful businesses reject these notions. The practices of command and control, double-dealing, treating employees as “human resources” and taking clients for granted are alive and well. Many reject the newer management style as too “touchy-feely.”

But I think Krefft and Dent are on to something, especially for our industry at this time. Whether we are operators, owners, dealers, manufacturers, manufacturers' reps, consultants or service agents, we all have experienced colossal change in our worlds over this past generation. Just think about where we are: We order grande cappuccinos instead of large coffees, we can experience the cuisines of the world in most up-market mall food courts, we work with combis, we “draw” in CAD, we thumb-type on our Blackberries while checking our schedules on our PDAs/cell phones. Building projects that used to take years to plan now take months; our wireless POS terminals keep us in the know with everything from transaction detail to perpetual inventory. And in what other industry have growth opportunities been so deep and broad? Who would have thought that college and on-site dining would become a chef-driven, restaurant-grade experience? Did you ever think that there would come a day when hospital food would cease to be “hospital food”?

Ironically, at the core of Krefft and Dent's argument is something that cuts across all boundaries and has been the same throughout the history of mankind. Connected/partnering cultures are built on personal integrity, personal character and trust — on the simple material of relationship building. While cultures and people groups are diverse, humans have core values that cut across cultural and time barriers. Krefft and Dent write, “From Anchorage to Ankara people understand honesty and keeping one's word. From Bangkok to Brussels people understand and value the importance of trust. From Canberra to Calcutta people know a fair deal and whether or not they are being cheated. From Dakar to Duluth people intuitively know if you are being open and candid or closed and secretive.” I would add that this has always been so.

I think our work should be an extension of who we are, and our ability to meet the needs of others (job-one on all our position descriptions) is directly related to our ability to partner with others, whether they are clients, customers, associates, direct reports, colleagues or whomever. Partnering can be scary, hard work, but it is necessary, even critical to our effectiveness and future. Partners stay partners because of trust, openness, the ability to work through and past conflict, and because of the commitment to stay connected.

In my practice as a consultant/designer I see this every day. Our clients are simply looking for someone to trust with their hopes and dreams, someone who they can count on to follow through every time, to be there with sound advice, timely responses, creative solutions — someone who connects with them. I think this is true of my colleagues and my team leaders. I think this is also true of end-users, factory fabricators, hospital patients, all those we directly interact with in our daily work lives. So let's plough headfirst into this ever-changing world, connecting and partnering with others and building organizations where it's encouraged. I think we will be glad we did.

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