Tao of the Zentropist

April 30, 2009

5 Critical Factors for Building Meaningful Business Relationships

Business relationships, like personal and romantic ones, are fundamental to our lives, whether we are freelancers or employees (I especially urge the latter group to understand that in this day and age, unless they belong to a union or have an employment contract, they have little more security or assurances than the former category). While all of these relationships share some commonalities, and all require constant nurturing, a key differentiator is “financial consideration,” a.k.a. “money.”

Don’t kid yourself — money does change everything, and failure to acknowledge and respect this fact can lead to disastrous results. Disputes over money can destroy friendships and marriages, so it is certainly understandable that in any form of business relationship, sensitivity towards one’s economic future, earning ability, cash flow or the continued viability of a venture is very high.

There are 5 critical factors that can go a long way in helping to identify, form and cultivate over time business relationships which have real value and substance for the involved parties. This goes beyond mere “networking,” which when awkwardly approached is transparently insincere and self-serving. Ultimately, if you wish to be successful, you need to invest very real time and energy into the process of building these business relationships, and you must honestly care about the outcome.

So here are the Zentropist’s 5 Critical Factors for Building Meaningful Business Relationships:

  1. Open Communication
  2. Trust
  3. Synergy
  4. Aligned Ethics & Values
  5. Reciprocity

Let’s briefly comment upon each of these.

Open Communication. I strongly believe that inability or failure to clearly communicate what each party wants out of a business alliance or partnership up front, or during the course of the relationship, is a leading cause for dissatisfaction and dissolution. It is vitally important to set expectations early, and to be frank and forthcoming about what the parties each bring to the table, and how they might positively influence each other. It is understood that businesses exist to earn money, and to be profitable they must earn more than they spend, so there is no shame in couching discussions in potential return on investment (ROI) or “How can we each make money by working together in some capacity?” But with that being said, remember that businesses, much like nation states, don’t have “friends” but rather have “interests,” and where these are in agreement and not mutually exclusive, opportunity exists to work together as allies.

Trust. Trust is essential to any form of relationship and in my opinion, is generally earned over time. Trust can take a long time to build, yet can be destroyed in an instant. Fundamentally, however, I do not believe that you can have a meaningful business relationship with a person or entity that you simply do not trust. At best, you may have some form of “understanding” or “relationship of convenience,” but such constructs are fleeting. You must be open to the notion of allowing another party to earn your trust, but not so giving as to be taken by the charlatans that will abuse this generosity of spirit. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, “Be willing to trust, but verify.”

Synergy. This is a term that often pops up in discussions of strategic partnerships. Rather than being a trite expression, it actually has very real meaning, predicated on the very definition of the word (the Greek syn-ergos, or “working together”). Situations in which two or more entities mutually cooperate in order to facilitate an advantageous outcome can be described as “synergistic.” Synergy can be derived from offering services which complement each other; from shared methodologies or approaches; from offering solutions which address different aspects of the value chain, etc. At the end of the day, every business should be looking at initiatives and deals in one of two ways: is this something that allows us to make more money, or to save money? As a product or service provider, part of your sales process is to convince the prospective customer that your offering addresses this need. In a business partnership, you not only must analyze this from the prospective of the working relationship with the partner, but if mutually closing a prospect together, how your joint offering will be perceived by the would-be buyer.

Aligned Ethics and Values. It is my contention that a business cannot successfully maintain a relationship with another that does not fundamentally value the same things or view the world from a similar ethical construct. Like oil and water, inconsistencies in theory and especially in practice simply do not mix. During the course of my professional career, I have been involved with entities that, diplomatically speaking, had a far more loose definition of what is ethical and right behavior. Whether that is organizations that value the sale more than the honest fulfillment of the agreement (and devote their energies and resources accordingly), or those that believe in delivering only to the level of the client’s sophistication (“good enough” versus doing your best for each and every client), I’ve witnessed it all. Far too many people and organizations pay lip service to ethics or claim to embrace certain values, and then betray this in their actions. If a prospective or existing business partner does not “walk the talk” in this regard, I believe it is incumbent to disengage. If they are willing to cheat or short change a customer, or to misrepresent themselves or their capabilities and accomplishments, there is little reason to believe they will be (or have been) straight with you. Trust matters.

Reciprocity. Business relationships, like other types, can be either symmetrical or asymmetrical. By this I mean that the balance of power and capabilities may be evenly distributed in a bi-lateral arrangement (i.e. “symmetrical”), or may be weighed in favor of one party (i.e. “asymmetrical”). In either case, the willingness to reciprocate is extremely important, although it takes on even more meaning when the more powerful entity treats the junior party with respect and consideration. It is not enough to ask, “What’s in it for me?” but rather, you must ask, “How can I bring value to this relationship and benefit the other party?” Because in doing so, you are essentially building “equity” in the relationship, and if the other party is honorable, trustworthy and committed, you will be directly or indirectly enriching your business either now or in the future. Hence the necessity of ensuring that the other four factors are present; if they are not, it is unlikely that good faith efforts will be reciprocated, and you cannot define the relationship as “meaningful.”

Black Rock Consulting is always willing to explore meaningful relationships with like-minded business owners. Give us a call or send us an email and let’s see where the rubber meets the road. It could be the start of a beautiful relationship…

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April 22, 2009

What “The Need to Win” Reveals About Process

The modern world is a very competitive place. Many of us buy into the notion, consciously or not, that life is often a “zero sum” game in which our gain must come at someone else’s expense or loss. Perhaps this is true in some circumstances and not true in others. Certainly if this is the prism through which we view the world, we must be prepared to deal with the stress of competition and find a means of emotional detachment from the outcome, lest we “choke” or fall victim to our own nerves.

Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi) was a Chinese philosopher who lived during the Warring States Period, in approximately the 4th Century BCE. His writings are Taoist in nature, taking the position that some things are simply unknowable or relative, and that perceptions are largely based on past experience.

Chuang Tzu addressed how the “need to win” could negatively influence an individual and the resulting effort to secure a favorable result in a passage entitled “The Need to Win.” The Thomas Merton Translation of this piece follows:

When an archer is shooting for nothing

He has all his skill.

If he shoots for a brass buckle

He is already nervous.

If he shoots for a prize of gold

He goes blind

Or sees two targets –

He is out of his mind!

His skill has not changed. But the prize

Divides him. He cares.

He thinks more of winning

Than of shooting –

And the need to win

Drains him of power.

It is ironic that the more deeply emotionally invested we become in an outcome, the more likely our performance will suffer for it and perhaps cause us to fail to achieve our objective. Hence the concept of “detachment,” or letting go of the emotional capital that we invest in obtaining the objective so that we can better focus on the process itself. This often seems counter-intuitive when we are counseled to “follow our passions” and we seek to translate this expression of energy into something more substantive. In effect, we must walk the razor’s edge between passion and dispassion. And it is oftentimes process which enables us to successfully pull off this feat.

Those that are high achievers in any field tend to be very process driven, whether they realize or acknowledge this fact, in part because having an effective process helps to ensure consistency and excellence once the individual is “dialed in.” Process helps to ensure that desired results are repeatable and not simply due to luck or a confluence of fortunate events. In some situations, process may help mitigate the impact of external factors that may be beyond our direct control.

However, process can be difficult to successfully implement if we allow emotions to cloud our judgment. This is not to say that instinct and “gut feelings” can never be trusted; truthfully, such inputs are a manifestation of our subconscious and awareness of our environment and can be vital in decision-making. The difficulty lies in reconciling such stimuli with a time proven process that focuses our full intent on the achievement of the objective.

Perhaps a key to the solution is disregarding this notion of “winning,” which is laced with powerful emotional baggage, and replacing it with a simple, matter-of-fact visualization of having obtained the result we are seeking. By de-coupling the euphoria and self-satisfaction that we associate with the concept of being the “winner,” and instead focusing on the effort necessary to reach this objective in a non-judgmental fashion, we actually increase the likelihood of finding ourselves standing at the pinnacle of success.

That’s something for the Zentropist within us all to remember…

April 15, 2009

The Virtue of Stillness

For many of us in the modern world, we live in an age of information overload and frenetic activity. It seems that everything moves at breakneck speed, and failure to comply with this unwritten imperative spells potential disaster. Coupled with this cultural mandate which often values speed over substance is a noticeable reduction in attention spans and inability for many to focus and live in the moment.

Yet it is this moment which is most real to us. The past is behind us, an ever growing collection of once present moments which recede into memory. And the future is at once malleable and inescapable, in part perhaps influenced by our actions in this moment and those past, yet far too unknowable to simply conform to our will.

Amid the pressures of our lives, we must seek moments to engage in stillness. For it is in stillness, both actual and metaphorical, that we can most connect with ourselves and the universe, which are all intertwined. In being “still,” and allowing our senses to reach out and process with minimal filtering the pulsation of the energy around us, we are most “in tune” and plugged into a vast reservoir which can be tapped and utilized to our advantage. This concept of a universal energy is found in widely divergent cultures worldwide, although it is perhaps most famously associated with the concept of chi or ki in the martial arts. For some, such a notion is far too metaphysical, so let’s counter with a real world example of the application of such theory…

I have heard it said that having children allows parents to experience childhood once again, albeit from a different perspective. My toddler son, like his parents, happens to enjoy being out in nature. These days he is rather captivated by searching for the fast-moving lizards which can be found all around his grandparents’ property.  Although it is possible to potentially outrun these lizards, for the most part they react to movement, and a toddler has yet to master the art of stealth and stalking.

But a child can learn (within reason) to be still. I am teaching my son this lesson in several steps. He has learned that the lizards like to bask in the sun, and there are always certain spots, at certain times of the day, where lizards tend to congregate. He has learned that rather than rush towards a lizard, it is better to approach slowly. Eventually he will learn that the best option may be to lie in wait, embracing the stillness, and let the lizard come to him. By blending with his environment, and settling into the flow of energy in a specific locale, he can experience stillness and reap the reward (getting close to the lizard) that he seeks.

In my practice of the martial arts, I have experienced stillness in many forms. Within all branches of Wing Chun Kung Fu, for example, there is an exercise termed chi sao, which translates as “energy arms.” Although it is often misunderstood by outsiders, this form of “touch sensitivity” training is designed to hone the reflexes, specifically for close quarters fighting, in which visual information is processed too slowly to counter rapid attacks. Rather, one is trained to first understand what it feels like when energy is in equilibrium (i.e. the parties engaged in the chi sao training are balancing each other via the extension of the ban sao / tan sao combination in one arm and the fuk sao of the second arm). Everything must be “just right.” Excessive forward energy or force is just as detrimental as insufficient forward energy or force.  Imprecision in the structure and positioning of the arms triggers a lack of equilibrium which invites immediate attack.

Because the arms, in effect, serve as antennae, the Wing Chun practitioner must learn to “listen” to the opponent through his body, searching for the lack of equilibrium which signals vulnerability while mindful of his or her own “center.” To do this, the mind must be “still,” in a relaxed frame rather than one which wishes to impose a specific outcome. The same is true in sparring — watch any experienced fighter and there is a stillness and calm until the moment when explosive movement is called for.

Experiencing stillness allows us to find our center. It is our center which “grounds us” and allows us to tap into not only our own internal energy, but the energy surrounding us. For those walking the Path of the Zentropist, this is an essential skill to cultivate.

So take a few minutes each day to experience stillness. Find a quiet place free of distraction. You can choose to stand or sit. Close your eyes. Focus on the breath. Be aware of each inhalation and exhalation. If you are trained in proper diaphragm breathing techniques (from Yoga, martial arts, etc.), put that breathing into practice. Inhale deeply through the nose. Allow your lungs to fill. Slowly exhale, forcing the air through the nostrils with the goal of equalizing the length of each inhalation and exhalation. As you settle into this rhythm, focus on the sounds around you. Next open your eyes, allowing your visual sense to return as you continue to breathe deliberately, which should also feed information via the sense of smell. Continue to remain attuned to the sounds in your environment, processing these auditory clues as well. Spend a few minutes in this state and notice the change in energy which you will experience. All in the practice of stillness.

It is in this deliberate stillness that we are most aware, and arguably, most alive…

April 10, 2009

Mastering the Art of Living

As John Lennon famously remarked, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

Perhaps now more than ever in recent memory, we need to concern ourselves with the “Art of Living,” which is as important (if not more so) than the “Art of Making a Living.”

Nothing in this world is permanent. There are both shadows and light. Periods of feasting and periods of famine. There is great Good in this world, and there is unmitigated and unrepentant Evil. It has always been this way. Certain theological beliefs and arguments aside, there is little reason to believe it will ever not be so.

The Zentropist walks the Path of Mastery, and it has been observed (quite accurately in my opinion) that this is a path with no end, a journey whose destination is always beyond the horizon. This teaches us that it is the journey that shapes us, as we face various obstacles, obstructions and challenges, and in overcoming such adversity, we learn things about ourselves that we otherwise would never have known.  Perhaps we do get knocked down, and there are times when we are convinced that we cannot possibly go on, but this is an illusion. We can go on, and there is always a way.

Rather than batter ourselves mercilessly against an unyielding foe, sometimes we must flow around it, or find the means to re-direct the opposing energy so as to realize our own goals. As my own Sifu likes to observe, “In a given moment force can only have one direction at a time.”

This is true in the application of martial arts to a particular situation and it is true on the larger playing field of life. While it is probably a natural human desire to want to compartmentalize life, to artificially construct firewalls between the various aspects of our existence, this too is an illusion. How we approach life is expressed in our actions and attitudes, and the good news is that we have the power to adapt and change. We may not be able to always control what befalls us, but how we react and adapt to such opportunities and challenges is paramount.

The pursuit of Mastery is really about the pursuit of Excellence. Many are afraid to pursue Excellence because of self-imposed limitations, or because they are not willing to invest the time necessary. Make no mistake. Mastery only comes through the dedicated and consistent application of work over time. And not just any work. Focused and detail-oriented work. The most difficult of all.

Even those blessed with natural abilities in a given endeavor must do the work. There are no shortcuts. There are no “quick fixes.” Sometimes the rewards are external, such as recognition among one’s peers or even the general public, and sometimes they are monetary. All too often, the rewards may be internal, or will only manifest externally over a far longer timeline.

All that we have in this world is time, yet ironically, it is not our place to know how much of it we have. How we invest that time is ultimately how we are measured, and something that we do have control over.

Heed the wisdom of the late writer James A. Michener, who said:

“The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he’s always doing both.”

So master the time that you have been given. Pursue excellence in all aspects of your life. Master the Art of Living in all its various expressions. Unleash the Zentropist within…

April 3, 2009

Growth During Recessionary Times: The Five Pillars

To quote Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

One day we will all collectively look back on this difficult period in time, and with the perfect clarity and wisdom of 20/20 hindsight, we will either rue missed opportunities or perhaps be in a position to congratulate ourselves on our prescience and persistence. For we must ultimately adopt a mindset that believes that things eventually will get better and that the economic wheels will once again turn freely, or we are tacitly accepting the notion that we are in the onset of a new global “Dark Ages” whose trials and tribulations may be too terrible to contemplate.

In either case, I still believe that rather than curse the darkness, it is better to light a candle to provide illumination for not only yourself, but for others to follow.

In an effort to help other entrepreneurial souls and small business weather these dark times, I am calling attention to what I term “The Five Recession Defying Pillars.” Now truth be told, there are probably a much great number of issues that a business owner can potentially focus on if properly motivated. However, by limiting our discussion to five which I feel are arguably most critical, we’re more likely to successfully implement them. As with the fingers of the hand, alone each “pillar” has its limitations, but when formed into a fist or pressed together to form a “knife edge” surface of the hand, they are much stronger acting in unity.

The Five Recession Defying Pillars include:

  • Focusing on Core Competencies
  • Building Alliances & Networks
  • Mining Niche Market Plays
  • Judicious Guerrilla Marketing
  • Scrutinizing Cash Flow

Let’s quickly examine the relevance of each of these pillars.

“Focusing on Core Competencies.” There’s a natural tendency when business slows down to lose focus and in the desperate gambit to attract new business, start diluting your offerings by delving into areas where you have little experience, aptitude or passion. This is self-defeating. Figure out what you’re good at, find a hook, and work it rigorously.

“Building Alliances & Networks.” There’s often strength in numbers. Never underestimate the power of referrals, or what active networking can do. But rather than approach it with a “What’s in it for me?” attitude, you must demonstrate how you can bring value to the equation. Or better yet, engage in the “pay it forward” concept of trying to genuinely connect and assist others, because in turn, you will eventually receive the same treatment. If you don’t belong to or attend industry events, or professional/trade/civic organizations, now is a good time to reconsider. There are opportunities in abundance to volunteer time or offer your expertise to develop the “credibility capital” that can pay off financially.

“Mining Niche Market Plays.” While it’s difficult to be a leading player in many vertical markets from a macro-perspective due to the existence of well established and capitalized competitors, there are often under-served or neglected segments within these larger markets that a shrewd and nimble business can capitalize on. Sometimes there can be incredible value in being the “big fish in the small pond.” For one, you don’t get eaten by larger fish.

“Judicious Guerrilla Marketing.” One of the worst mistakes a business can make is to completely abandon or neglect its marketing. We all know that traditional media is getting reamed because of changing consumer preferences and behavior, which means opportunities abound to cut deals if it makes sense to reach your customers through these channels. The proliferation of digital media, which is often far more affordable and provides a more measurable ROI, is a boon if you cherry pick your placements and really understand your prospective customer behavior. Even if you don’t have a budget, establish a regular presence on social networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. If you can offer relevance and value, you’ll eventually attract paying customers.

“Scrutinizing Cash Flow.” If you don’t have money in the bank, you cannot pay your bills. It’s that simple. Having accounts receivable is nice, but remember that your A/R is someone else’s accounts payable, and they may not be in a hurry to part with their cash. Cash, as well as content, is king.

So get out there and don’t give up. This too shall pass…

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