Entrepreneurs: How to Avoid Screwing Up Your Most Vital Relationships

Entrepreneurs will go to extraordinary lengths to connect with people who can help them -- potential investors, mentors, partners, employees, customers -- and then permanently damage these relationships with unnecessary mistakes.
08/18/2016 01:47 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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Best way to wreck your business?

Easy: sabotage your most promising relationships.

Yes -- it boggles the mind. Entrepreneurs will go to extraordinary lengths to connect with people who can help them -- potential investors, mentors, partners, employees, customers -- and then permanently damage these relationships with unnecessary mistakes.

What mistakes are these? I give you three of the worst -- and better yet, I talked to two expert relationship builders to show you how to fix them.

First up: meet Ryan Westwood, founder of a software company called Simplus, contributing writer on Forbes, and organizer of Evening on the Terrace -- an event which brings together people from many different backgrounds, to take part in a meal and talk about anything except their work.

Turns out, the foundation of valuable conversations is simple: stop and listen.

1) Don't pitch. Listen as if your life depends on it.

Never made sense to me: an entrepreneur finally manages to reach an experienced person in their field, and then talks over them. Worse, they even try to pitch. Yikes.

Westwood suggests the exact opposite. While interviewing people for Forbes, he realized the value of such conversations.

"I feel like I've accelerated my growth as an entrepreneur by doing these interviews better than any school I did, or anything else."

"It was the best way for me to get educated as quickly as possible and with the smallest number of mistakes by simply listening to people with experience."

And hence, he founded Evening on the Terrace, to take this personal and business growth to the next level.

The point? The atmosphere of trust and cooperation at these gatherings made it easy for people to discover new ways to attack old problems.

For instance, at one such event, when Westwood put a problem into play in the conversation -- something he and his staff at Simplus struggled with for some time -- it gave him a fresh look on his business. Novel angles to a current problem, discovered only because he listened like crazy.

Same for you. Take this to heart: when the other person talks, you listen. Mouth closed, ears open. Full attention on their words and message.

Make sense? Good -- because if you fail at this, you lose on two counts. Once, because you can't learn anything, and then again by wasting the other person's time.

2) Do not let relationships die. Nurture them.

Sad fact: many entrepreneurs connect with influential people once, and then never again. Huge waste of potential.

Our second expert, Cheryl Snapp Conner, founder of SnappConner Public Relations, shared a powerful story with me.

While running her firm, she connected with Tom Post, who at the time ran the Entrepreneurs content channel on Forbes, and asked if she could have a column on his platform.

He agreed. Several years later, she made him a job offer...and now Post acts as SnappConner PR's "feet on the street" in New York.

How did this happen? Conner had a gut sense Post was ready to become an entrepreneur himself. Plus, due to internal changes at Forbes, Post now faced a long daily commute. And Conner was attuned to all of this.

See the point? To nurture a relationship, you need to tune into the other person's world. To continually support them on their journey. You must ask yourself: since they live in their world, and you in yours, where can the two connect such that the other person gains from it?

Try this: pick 10 people you respect and would love to build relations with. Now go and see what they've been up to for the past couple months. Can you spot an opportunity to be helpful to some of them?

But look -- you can touch base in small ways. Congratulate them on a recent achievement, thank them for something they helped you with, or just take the time to thoroughly read something they wrote and then tell them about it -- any of these count.

Once you identify a way to provide value for them, go for it -- and better yet, don't expect to get anything in return.

3) Take the self-interest out of it.

Conner nailed this one. She told me:

"When something is genuinely given, nobody has to keep score."

True. To constantly keep score means you did not truly commit to giving.

As an entrepreneur, you need to "take the self-interest out of it," as Conner puts it. She sees this in many of her clients: they set out to get published on various platforms, to achieve their own business goals, rather than provide value for readers.

Bottom line? Sounds strange, but it rings true: you rise above the noise when you genuinely help another person. Barriers vanish which you couldn't even see before.

Westwood sums it up for us. The most valuable asset is not money, but human relationships:

"My view: relationship capital trumps actual capital. If you have the right relationships, it will pay immense dividends in the long run."

Now -- guess what? When you do all the above with diligence, things change. People start to take you seriously. The strength of your relationships will no longer take a nosedive every time you talk.