Despite our fascination with community, Ohana-type corporate cultures, and bizarre team bonding exercises, the theme of American business culture over the past few decades, at least in its messaging, seems rich with tones of antagonism. The workplace is filled with aggressive phrases rooted in the language of warfare: we “kill it” in our business deals, we convene in “war rooms,” we glorify “hostile takeovers,” we “cannibalize” concepts, and we too often refer to our competitors -- and even our colleagues -- as opponents in some sort of ideological battle. I think it’s time for a truce. For unity. For diplomacy. When we work together, we achieve so much more. Last week, we showcased the value of strategic supplier partnerships for MSPs. Now let’s look at how to achieve true alignment between client hiring managers and MSPs.
The Business World Doesn’t Need More Frenemies
Lately, there’s been a resurgence in the term “frenemy.” The portmanteau first appeared in print in 1953, when famed gossip columnist Walter Winchell coined it to sum up our nation’s tenuous relationship with the Soviet Union. In the late 1970s, the label was renewed to depict business interactions.
The very nature of the legal system, for example, is defined as an adversarial process. We value competition to such high degrees that the best-selling business guides frequently invoke Sun Tzu, a vaunted Chinese military strategist from two millennia ago. Sun Tzu’s principles have been applied to every conceivable corporate mission, as reflected in works such as “Sun Tzu: Strategies for Marketing - 12 Essential Principles for Winning the War for Customers,” “Sun Tzu For Success: How to Use the Art of War to Master Challenges and Accomplish the Important Goals in Your Life,” and “The Art of War for Women: Sun Tzu's Ancient Strategies and Wisdom for Winning at Work.”
Back in 2007, a Businessweek article stated that frenemies in the workplace had become commonplace fixtures, due to increasingly informal environments and the “abundance of very close, intertwined relationships that bridge people’s professional and personal lives ... [while] it certainly wasn’t unheard of for people to socialize with colleagues in the past, the sheer amount of time that people spend at work now has left a lot of people with less time and inclination to develop friendships outside of the office.”
Now, 11 years later, frenemies are still stuffing the headlines. A simple Google search reveals the tireless subject:
- “Frenemy in the Workplace: 5 Warning Signs”
- “Office Friendships: Beware of Workplace Frenemies”
- “How to Handle a Frenemy at Work”
- “5 Types of Frenemies at Work”
- “Frenemies: How Ambivalent Relationships Affect Us on the Job”
- “The Psychology of Workplace Frenemies”
And the list keeps going. It’s so commonplace that we’ve normalized it. It’s how people refer to acquaintances and peers in their social networks. And we wonder why our working relationships with teammates and managers seem so strained.
A Hiring Manager’s Dear John Letter
As MSPs mature to their 3.0 states and increasingly unseat incumbent providers to take over legacy accounts, the transformative stages come with a lot of new faces. While some scenarios involve an overly insular and comfortable relationship, many other situations find MSP account professionals at odds with fresh, unfamiliar hiring managers.
A few years ago, while consulting with a large MSP, we witnessed how quickly an otherwise productive partnership soured because of adversarial perceptions and resistance to change. The client, a multinational manufacturing company, consolidated its global spend into its national program. The initial hiring manager was replaced, leaving MSP teams to build a new relationship with the incoming hiring manager -- a more experienced, metrics-driven, no-nonsense professional with a keen sense of finance. During the first meeting, the newly installed hiring manager began asking probing questions about mediocre performance ratings and, in particular, what she considered to be unreasonable SLAs.
This could have been a highly collaborative and productive conversation. The hiring manager considered the SLAs unattainable only in the sense that her predecessor had demanded unreasonable terms. She believed the performance could be improved by making the established metrics more realistic to the MSP. Yet, the MSP account executive didn’t take the discussions that way.
Instead of absorbing the constructive criticism and accepting the new hiring manager’s outreach to re-engineer a more efficient and achievable success together, the MSP executive formed an opinion of the hiring manager as an adversary, using phrases like “frenemy,” “obstacle” and “opponent” to describe the person. The MSP’s former sponsor had been more friendly, personal, and complacent about tolerable performance. Yet that hiring manager was ineffective in the role. By letting her internal dialog tarnish her perception of the new hiring manager, the MSP account executive nearly lost the client’s business.
How to Make Friends with Hiring Managers
Attempting to establish a partnership with a new hiring manager, or improve an existing one, requires a committed effort in which you, the MSP relationship expert, must take full accountability. Where trust has been eroded, or hasn’t yet flowered, you’ll need patience. A series of ongoing and measurable accomplishments, no matter how small, will pave a much smoother path toward the goals you’re hoping to reach.
Yet, you must remain strong and focus on actions, not words tinged with apologies or attempts at persuasion. Don’t agree to commitments you can’t keep for the sake of earning credibility, and don’t passively accept strong criticisms and unhealthy exchanges to avoid confrontation. Engaging in meaningful discourse and striving to understand the root causes or business reasons for the hiring manager’s decisions will go a long way toward building trust.
Find Ways to Respect the Hiring Manager
Seek out admirable qualities in the hiring manager, and then capitalize on them. People sense the insincerity of false adulation. By feigning respect, you can destroy it and raise suspicion.
- Shadow the hiring manager and carefully note his or her skills, approach, behaviors, style, and successes.
- Identify traits that you would choose to emulate in the same role.
- Tell the other members of your team about those characteristics, which will rally them to focus on those positive attributes as well.
- Praise the hiring manager for good decisions, constructive feedback, and when you recognize those admirable traits being put to use.
In doing so, you lay the foundations for loyalty -- to the hiring manager, the client, and their vision for the overall program. If you have concerns, voice them directly and privately with the hiring manager. Don’t conspire against him. Don’t circumvent her and report issues to her superiors. Give the hiring manager the chance to work with you to redress situations and overcome hurdles, demonstrating the importance of the relationship to you and your team.
Honor Commitments and Obligations
Sincerity is critical. You’ll get ahead by under-promising and over-delivering. It’s easy to accept tasks and make promises we think we can meet to please hiring managers. We must, however, only commit to those things we are certain we can achieve. Missing deadlines, exaggerating expectations for anticipated results, and being inconsistent will hobble efforts to build and expand credibility. You must prove your team to be reliable, punctual, and invested in the client’s business outcomes. Admit mistakes and take ownership for correcting them, then prevent future occurrences.
Communicate regularly with the hiring manager and ensure complete transparency into the program and the MSP team’s performance. Be equally forthcoming about your intentions, plans, ongoing improvement efforts, and innovations for the program. This gives the hiring manager an opportunity to collaborate, prioritize the ideas, and help set realistic boundaries for your strategies. By the end of this discussion, you will have worked out a solid action plan with deliverables you can honor.
Establish Professional Boundaries and Healthy Dissent
A hiring manager who’s serious about the success of the program relishes honesty. It’s not always easy to say “no” or deliver challenging news, but the truth will always be preferable. Sometimes, we must “lose with integrity” rather than make false promises or fabricate results. When we stumble and immediately inform hiring managers, they will likely step up to help redress the issues. They will respect your integrity and rapid response in mitigating disruptions or program risks. A perceived lie destroys credibility and is often talked about in wider circles.
Set Achievable Goals
Set realistic boundaries with the hiring manager and mutually develop attainable SLAs, KPIs, project deadlines, and schedules for deliverables up front. Engage and involve the hiring manager in these decisions -- don’t present a formalized plan without this input. Not only will you avoid creating expectations you might not meet (given the shifting and dynamic nature of the client’s business), you will convey to the hiring manager a true spirit of partnership, reciprocity, and cooperation.
As these boundaries are put in place and evolve, the need to say “no” could become unnecessary.
Solicit and Act on Feedback
In our earlier examples, we witnessed the pitfalls of failing to assess program performance, working to wring feedback from hiring managers, and acting on recommendations or concerns. MSPs must remember that they’re not at war with hiring managers, and hiring managers aren’t campaigning against their MSPs. In fact, it’s the hiring manager’s appeal for support that inspires this sort of outsourcing. The hiring manager should be viewed as a trusted ally. Of course a relationship is a two-way street, but somebody must break ground first. In this case, it should be the MSP.
- Regularly and actively solicit feedback from hiring managers.
- When a hiring manager calls to present corrective feedback or advice, demonstrate that you are listening, taking notes, and formulating a plan to address the recommendations.
- Where a VMS is utilized, incorporate the hiring manager’s feedback in notes.
- Thank the hiring manager for bringing issues to your team’s attention. Engage the hiring manager in plans for resolution. Follow up with an email or, even better, a brief report outlining the issues, the discussion, and steps you’ll take toward remedies and future improvements. Make the plan realistic and adhere to it.
- Make the action plan a project with repeatable processes. Create milestones and attainable deliverables, with a reasonable schedule in place. At the completion of each phase or milestone, present your results to the hiring manager and request feedback. Refine processes as necessary and move on to the next stage.
- Integrate these actions and accomplishments into your regularly scheduled formal business reviews. Not only will this highlight the efforts of your MSP, it will showcase the success of the partnership you have cultivated with the hiring manager. When the hiring managers receive praise from their superiors, they are more likely to recognize the value of their relationship with your MSP.
The Internet is filled with articles dedicated to pondering business cultures of disengagement, unsustainable attrition, manager-employee issues, internal conflicts, and failures to attract candidates with effective employment brands. A large part of all these concerns most likely arises from the language we employ and the perceptions they create. To succeed in this new generation, especially as socially conscious Millennials take center stage, we need to find ways of gaining trust, acceptance, and nurturing relationships -- making love, not war.
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