Originally published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Aug. 16, 2013

It’s the end of the workday — again. And again you’re asking, “What did I really get done today?”

Your to-do list is no shorter. In fact, it’s longer than this morning because of the obligatory tasks spawned by the day’s interactions.

You know this territory. Every contact leads to a forest of follow-ups. Someone has made an introduction you now need to call, or a potential new contact wants to meet you for coffee, or a media contact has asked you for a fact sheet about your new product launch, or a between-jobs past acquaintance wants you to put in a good word with a new colleague.

Each has importance. You hope each might lead to a strategic opportunity in the future. But that won’t happen if you drop the ball on the follow-through, and you’ve only got time to complete a fraction of the relationship-building tasks you’d like to focus on.

How can you stop wasting time and focus on the relationships that matter most?

What you need is a relationship gate. Not a wall around your office; not a tower and a moat to keep out all comers — just a solid boundary that demands “tactical or strategic?” of all who approach.

A relationship gate demands quality of those who enter. Without that gate, you might as well put your desk in the middle of rush-hour traffic, because your busywork is noise, and it is drowning out the signals that matter most. Without a relationship gate, you won’t find the focus you need to prioritize attention to your most important relationships.

Your gate takes the form of a simple question: “How are we dramatically better off because we’re in this relationship together?”

Before you say yes to a request for your time, pause and consider: Is there likely to be a viable win-win (not just we win or they win) outcome?

The other day a chairman on a board I’ve consulted with asked me to speak to a group he mentors. Now, I consider this man a pivotal contact, which by my definition means he can accelerates my ability to achieve key goals, and I like to think I do the same for him.

That makes our relationship strategic and of mutual value for both parties. He knows I speak frequently to groups of all sizes, on all continents. I’m pleased he thought of me. But the group he wanted me to address is an association of small and midsized business owners, not really my target audience.

And one of the first business lessons I learned as a professional speaker was never to speak to an audience where your next economic buyer isn’t sitting in front of you!

What would be in it for me if I said yes? A small shot of goodwill on his side, and a much larger hit of bad energy on mine, felt every time I do the obligatory follow-through tasks, from sending my bio to the event organizer through traveling to speak to his group. Is that a viable outcome? No.

I cordially declined his offer, with plenty of thanks for thinking of me, mixed with a little clarification of the types of speaking engagements I seek and a referral to another speaker more appropriate to his business owners.

Focus on who matters most

If we all stopped wasting time on our least productive business relationships, we would find more energy to focus on the people who matter most. Don’t misconstrue my comment. I’m not trying to teach you how to be a snob, or how to become more manipulative in dealing with others.

I’m simply trying to help you see that you simply don’t have the bandwidth to invest in every relationship equally. So, why is this critical to your success and how can you become more selfish with your time, effort and resources?

I’ll give you three reasons why, and three steps how to do so:

Reason No. 1: Pursuing the wrong business relationships waste cycles, which wastes time for everyone involved. If someone is not a good prospect for you, use your gate!

Ask, “How are we dramatically better off because we’re in this relationship together?” If you can’t immediately point to the value generated for both sides, neither of you needs to waste cycles on this one.

Be kind. Don’t just stop returning phone calls and emails. Find the right words to convey, “I’m sorry but I’m not a good prospect for you,” or “In all candor, I’m just not the right person for this initiative!”

By bringing the cycles to a close, instead of continuing them willy-nilly for no real reward, you free up time for all concerned.

Reason No. 2: You are paying opportunity costs every time you prioritize busywork over strategic relationships. Something of value must be given up to acquire something else. What could you be doing with the time that currently goes to follow-ups generated by nonessential business relationships? What opportunities are you currently ignoring, at what cost? Simply asking, “How are we dramatically better off?” should allow you to close your gate to some people, and open up opportunity to get to know other, more strategic contacts.

Reason No. 3: Personal growth. As a leader, your personal development is essential to your professional and organizational success. You need to be surrounded by tough, smart people who will push you, not people who make you comfortable. One of the key ways you add value for your strategic relationships is through your candor — speaking truthfully to each other, passionately helping each grow. If a business relationship doesn’t push you toward growth, it’s probably not strategic. Close the gate.

OK, you say, I’m building a relationship gate and I’m going to be strategic about who I let through. How exactly do you suggest I do that? It’s easier than you think because relationship gates are more about what you don’t do.

Step No. 1: Stop connecting with everybody on social media who asks. We all get lots of requests to connect on LinkedIn or be friends on Facebook. Most barely rank above mere transactions, connections that cannot carry you anywhere you couldn’t get on your own. Start using your social media for trusted relationships only. Be polite about requests from individuals outside your relationship gate: Reply courteously with a variation on, “unfortunately, I don’t see the fit between our respective efforts.”

Step No. 2: Stop going to meetings with people outside your relationship gate. (And if you can’t tell who is outside that gate, remember the question, “How are we dramatically better off because we’re in this relationship together?”)

Meetings are hugely costly in terms of wasted cycles, opportunity cost and lack of personal growth. They cost you before, during and after the event — your travel time and preparation; your time spent focusing on the content and process of the meeting itself; and the follow-ups they spawn, such as more introductions, too often to people who have no viable outcome to offer you. Decline meetings that don’t clearly and specifically add value for you or a pivotal contact.

Step No. 3: Stop playing the field. Focus like a laser on defining your ideal strategic relationship profile and finding individuals who fit it. In other words, “know who you want to date.”

Pivotal contacts are leaders among their peers, movers and shakers in their company, industry and community. The right pivotal contacts are likely to be several levels above your current reach in terms of business stature. Their names are easy enough to find, if you are clear about your goals, but getting an introduction is difficult. So is fanning that spark into interest that leads to a second meeting, and building a relationship based on mutual trust, respect and value.

To meet this challenge, you must close the gate on business relationships that aren’t increasing your exposure to, and connection with, pivotal contacts. Focus on quality, not quantity, in the relationships you pursue.

If you would like to reach the end of the workday satisfied with the work completed and excited about the people you’ve touched, get yourself a relationship gate. You will stop wasting your and others’ time. Be courteous, kind and selfish, and soon you’ll find yourself with time and attention to give the people who matter most.

Nour is CEO of The Nour Group Inc. and author of “Relationship Economics and Return on Impact.”


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