I am blessed to celebrate my 80th birthday on Jan. 9, 2015. Fifty years ago I was just 30, about the age of many of you who are members of what’s referred to as Generation Y, or millennials. I am fortunate to have made it this far along the journey of life, and I don’t take a moment of my experiences for granted. While I am decades removed, in terms of age and lifestyle, from where you may be as a millennial, I often think of the lessons that served me well when I was in my 30s, and they continue to stand the test of time today.
Over the course of my business career, I’ve seen technologies emerge and fade into obsolescence, political movements come and go, and economies rise and fall. It often seems that everything has changed, many times over. But there are some things that remain the same, especially when it comes to succeeding in business. Whether you count yourself a millennial (along with all eight of my grandchildren) or not, I offer you wisdom that you can depend on to pay dividends, no matter what your ambitions may be. At the foundation of my advice is this: Even in the age of electronic communication and social media, business is about relationships. Whoever has the best, strongest relationships wins.
Let me start with something with which I am admittedly only passingly familiar: social media and text messaging. It is a mistake to assume that these and other forms of electronic, device-driven communication can truly substitute for direct, face-to-face interaction when building business relationships. Conference calls and electronic messages can be convenient and save time, and even enable individual transactions, but they are ineffective at best for establishing the underlying healthy relationships of trust, integrity, and empathy required to build and sustain real, major business. Don’t be fooled by telecom commercials you see on TV—multimillion-dollar deals are not negotiated via text messages, but by people who know and respect each other.
There is no substitute for eye-to-eye contact, a firm handshake, and meaningful conversation that help to authentically show who you are and learn whom you are dealing with. Without healthy, personal interaction, your texts will be ignored, e-mails deleted, and voice-mail messages unanswered. Taking the time to know people, and giving them a chance to know you, requires showing and investing genuine interest in those you want to do business with—collecting influential “friends” on social media alone just won’t cut it.
When it comes to building relationships, personal communication is always best. Face-to-face meetings trump video or audio conference calls, especially when a relationship is new or being tested. Trust me, you may follow each other on Twitter, but you won’t build truly lucrative relationships with genuine influencers that way.
Take the time to develop and practice your social skills—not just your social media skills. Listen at least twice as much as you talk. Be attentive and contribute genuine conversation, not a lecture or sales pitch. Find a common interest, and don’t assume that it’s you. Forming strong relationships is about identifying shared goals and mutual benefit, not just serving your own agenda. If you’re going to pitch, sell to their needs—not from yours. Don’t strive to be impressive, but to leave a positive impression. It’s more important that people enjoy and look forward to their interactions with you than that you succeed in badgering them into doing what you want in that moment, only to be avoided like the plague thereafter.
The bottom line: If you just want to do minor transactions, use text messaging, social media, or your favorite mobile app. But if you want to transact major business deals, get serious about building the authentic relationships you will need to make them happen. That’s as much the reality for the millennial generation as it was for mine. Make quality, personal interaction a top priority in your business dealings in 2015 and beyond.