Monday, August 16, 2010

Friendship and Business

There's an old adage that says `Don't mix business with friendship'. `Don't take this personally, it's business' is something that will be said today, hundreds of times up and down the country as contracts are cut-short, people let go or something that felt oh-so-good, comes to nothing.

So should we mix the two? Ought these two things be kept separate? It comes down, in a way, to how one views friendship. I have two classes of friend: my professional friends, with whom I mainly discuss work, and my other friends with whom never comes up.

The latter, of course, are `true' friends in the sense that they are not contingent on a professional connection or any particular turn of events. But the former group feel like more than just a bunch of useful associates. I enjoy some of them more than I do my own friends. One or two of them I care about a great deal and, if I am honest, I often feel I have more in common with my work friends than others.

What does this mean for business? I am sure I am not alone in saying what I have just said. For many of us, work is a rich place for relationships, intellectual and emotional stimulation. We tend to gravitate towards business relationships that bring with them a degree of satisfaction akin to that gained through friendship. Friendship, in other words, oils the wheels of business, in my view.

I was brought to mind about this questions as I listened to 6 Music this morning. They played songs by the Coral, Doves, REM, Elbow and the Manics (I know, I know!) - all bands that have been together a long time. Arguably this is what also makes them successful after long periods of time and when most bands have gone their own ways. To them, friendship is partly what makes their jobs worth it.

For me, I don't separate business and friendship. I aspire to strong professional friendships characterised by trust, consideration and helpfulness. This is beyond `friendliness' - which is cheap and easy. I do this partly because of who I am - my own needs and preferences - but also because I believe that powerful professional bonds make for far better results. Just as trust-based society is always more successful than one dominated by fear so a trust-based approach to work generates far more than one spent wondering about what someone might do to damage you.

Of course, this is an ideal. I was a CEO till recently and didn't inevitably, get on with everyone on that level. Indeed one of the limiters of the job for me was that I had to keep more distance than often felt natural. But where I was most successful was with people with whom the relationship worked. Life, I believe, is about relationships, above all else. So is business. If business isn't life-affirming and its practice doesn't, on some level, correspond, to our need to connect to others, to behave how we know we ought to do, then we stop living as we should.

I would even go so far as to say that saying `Don't mix business and friendship' is one step down a very long, dark staircase called Death!

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