How To Make Your Important, Long-Term, Business Relationships Work

In a recent ETR message, I complained about Ann’s handwriting and her somewhat casual method of keeping track of tasks. Needless to say, she was not a happy camper. “I can’t imagine in what possible way that message could benefit either of us,” she said. “Now all the important people you deal with, the people you’ve trusted me to deal with, will think I’m some bumbling, mediocre person.” “So . . . you didn’t like it,” I said, fumbling, hoping to lighten the moment with a litotes.

Ann had a good point, and I couldn’t deny it — not logically and certainly not with her standing there, steely-eyed and arms akimbo, looking as if she was ready to belt me if I made one more false move. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. You know that I disagree with the way you organize your work. But you also know that I know that you do all the important things right.” And then I felt pretty bad, because I realized I had not said that in print.

So I want to say so now as a way of explaining how business relationships (and maybe all relationships) can work, even if everyone isn’t perfectly happy with everything all of the time. Ann came to work for me about — cripes — 15 years ago. I had just retired for the first time, and she was in graduate school studying to be a shrink. At that time, I had only personal business for her to handle: my investments, my little building projects, the short stories I was writing. Ann quickly proved to be superbly good at understanding what was important to me and finding a way to get it done.

Sixteen months later, I was back in business, as a consultant — and very soon thereafter, our workload went from easy and challenging to overwhelming and nearly impossible. Before I retired, when the world operated without e-mail, I kept at least two full-time assistants working for me at all times. Nowadays, as a consultant, constantly taking on new clients and new projects, I generate even more work.

As good as she is, Ann can’t possibly do everything that needs to be done herself. When our workload became too much for one person to handle, she hired an assistant. And now, her assistant has a part-time helper. But this is what Ann does do — and this is why she’s irreplaceable: Ann isn’t a yes-woman. She doesn’t do everything I ask just because I ask for it. She weighs each request against the amount of time she has available and gives priority to those things that she knows that — in the long run — I care about most.

However much I might be screaming for someone to fix the footlights in the media room, Ann knows that I can live without them for a few weeks but that I can’t live without getting my flight plans booked early and making that call to Alex to calm him down about whatever. She wants me to succeed. Ann’s compensation is partially based on how well our businesses do, but her interest in seeing me succeed is genuine. That means a great deal to me. She is discreet.

Ann has access to virtually all my personal information and I never have to worry about it. She remembers. Ann doesn’t have to be told twice about how to do something. Whether it’s installing rebar in a foundation, handling a sensitive ego, or developing a real-estate spreadsheet, she prides herself on doing it at least as well as I can. That takes an enormous burden off my shoulders. Ann isn’t perfect, but neither am I. Each of us puts up with whatever peccadilloes the other one has, because, in the long run, the relationship is a good one — for her and for me.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]