Keeping a Professional Distance

Posted by Mark Pilkenton

I’ve received a lot of business advice since I joined the business world 25 years ago. Some of it solicited, some of it not. There are a few words of wisdom that stick with me still. One of them was given to me by the CEO of the company I worked for out of college. He was in town, rallying the sales troops for our next fiscal year. After the fan fair died down, and most of the team had headed home, I stayed late and had a few extra drinks with the old man.

He was sharing with me his vision, and the team he was building. I asked him, “How do you keep a professional distance between all of your employees, vendors, and business partners?”

He looked at his glass, swallowed down two fingers of scotch and told me, “You don’t.”

He went on to explain that “…there are no such things as ‘personal relationships’ and ‘business relationships’. There are only relationships. Some are more intimate and important than others. That is all. So the idea of keeping someone at a distance, is really simply stating that you don’t trust that person to see you for who you truly are. So you keep them at arm’s length so you can control their perception of you. A person with character and integrity doesn’t avoid intimacy, they seek it out. They trust that when others see the faults and flaws, their respect grows, since they see a genuine person. So when someone tells you, ‘It’s nothing personal, it’s only business,’ what they are really saying is that they are about to do something that is good for them, and hurts you. The reason they are going to do this, in large part, is because they don’t have a close enough relationship with you to make your needs a priority. That’s a pretty personal statement.”

So I have looked at all of the relationships in my life through this prism ever since. I always ask myself if I’m providing value to someone else. Am I relevant to them? Am I important enough to them that they would make a choice that is in my best interest, even at their own expense?

I realize that you can’t have intimate relationships with everyone, but I’ve learned that it is incredibly valuable to identify which ones are critical and to never take them for granted.

People always ask how I handle having personal friends working for me. “Doesn’t that cause issues since you are so close?” No. I want people who know me, and I know them, to work here. I want my key customers to see this company, warts and all. We live in a world now where people email rather than picking up a phone or stopping by, because the ‘space’ makes them more comfortable.

I wish they could see that the most professional distance, is no distance at all.

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