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Published: May 29, 2012
 / Summer 2012 / Issue 67

 
 

Connections with Integrity

The venture capitalist who cofounded LinkedIn reveals the surefire system that he has used since high school for evaluating potential business relationships.

As a venture capitalist, and the cofounder of the leading online professional networking site, I am keenly aware of the value of good alliances. Indeed, my interest in the nature of alliances began long ago, when I was a freshman in high school. Thinking about what I would do with my life, I came up with a perfect plan. My friends and I would all seek positions of power. One of us would be president of the United States; another would be president of IBM; another would run a powerful nonprofit. We’d coordinate our efforts and change the world together. Seems like a lofty ambition for a high schooler, I know, but we truly believed that if we joined forces, anything in life was possible.

Thinking now about the kinds of people who make good allies, I realize that over the years I’ve come to group the behavior of my friends and acquaintances into four categories based on the way they manage the relationships in their lives. These categories have become the clues, signs, and guideposts I look for when assessing whether I want a certain person in my corner — and if so, what that alliance should look like. The four categories also serve as a framework for me in deciding who to engage with in business partnerships and other professional relationships. They influence everything from the companies I choose to invest in, to the people I hire to work at LinkedIn, to the acquaintances I try to get to know better over lunch. Some leaders have difficulty with alliances, either because they do not understand the importance of alliances in a networked world, or because they do not understand the types of alliances that are possible with different people. Still others struggle because they fail to see that true alliances are not just a means to an end; they are authentic relationships built upon mutual respect and trust. This understanding has helped me adopt the right kind of alliance with each individual I encounter professionally.

In the course of their careers, people in professional life — who succeed at least in part because of the quality of their encounters with one another — meet a wide variety of other people. One could see these acquaintances, in effect, as standing on a continuum of trustworthiness and accountability. At one end are people who treat the world as transactional, judging each individual encounter by its benefits for them alone. People in the middle are moved and inspired by a higher order of sensibility; they perceive their effect on the world at large to matter as much as the short-term benefits of any individual deal. And at the far end, some people are motivated primarily by the quality and impact of their relationships. For every individual you might do business with, it’s essential to know where he or she stands on this continuum, to know how much you can trust him or her and how the relationship can be most beneficial — to both of you.

Four Attitudes about Alliances

It can be difficult to see the character and motivations of other people clearly, because many of us keep those facets hidden. All successful professionals learn to interact reasonably well with others, even when some of them have little care or regard for other people. But the way people manage alliances is a powerful clue. It reveals not just how they approach business dealings, but how they will actually behave in an alliance with you. Here are the four basic categories.

1. “I’ll do something for you, if you’ll do something for me.” These people limit themselves to deals in which their immediate benefit is at least as great as the benefits for others. If they’re investors, they put their money in a company only when the deal is certain to reward them financially; they insist on either immediate payoff or some guaranteed terms for the future. They’re generally unwilling to do something for other people without certainty that in the future they will be paid back.

 
 
 
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