Friday, May 15, 2009

The Art of Relationship Building - F W de Klerk and Nelson Mandela

Yesterday I had the honour of speaking just before former South African State President and Nobel Laureate F W de Klerk at the excellent Regional Conference of The Academy for Chief Executives. Mr. de Klerk presented a fascinating speech on how to lead in times of dramatic change, and his talk was followed by a question and answer session that left the audience in awe.

One of the stories that Mr. De Klerk shared was in response to a question concerning how his relationship with Nelson Mandela developed. Mr. de Klerk was, of course, the President who released Mr. Mandela from jail and who set in motion the dismantling of the apartheid system of government that had left his country on the brink of civil war and isolated from the rest of the World.

The story of how their relationship developed provided key lesson for all of us when meeting new people with whom we want to work going forward. It was particularly striking when you consider the huge differences in the two men's backgrounds and political beliefs.

When they first met, Mr. de Klerk said that they steered clear of talking about politics. They both knew by then each other's position and instead Mandela impressed de Klerk with his knowledge of South African military history and admiration for Boer Generals. I often stress the benefits of building relationships first by finding common ground and relaxing into an enjoyable conversation, and this is exactly what Mandela achieved. Speaking with de Klerk about something of interest to both of them, where they were not likely to argue but instead find common views, would have strengthened the relationship going forward when discussions would be less amicable.

In their respective autobiographies, both men reported that after this meeting they felt they had met "someone I could do business with".

When you network, how much emphasis do you put on finding people you can do business with, because you can develop a relationship where you know, like and trust people? It is so much easier to work with friends than acquaintances or people you have just met. "Pursue the relationship, not the sale" is a quote I heard almost ten years ago and have used in speeches, books and articles ever since. It remains one of the most important pieces of advice I have ever heard about networking.

If two people from completely opposite camps can overcome their differences by building a friendship first, surely there are lessons for those of us in business. Despite a number of issues and the near breakdown of trust during the tough negotiations that followed, the friendship and respect that emanated from this first meeting held the process together and today F W de Klerk considers Nelson Mandela a good friend.

How likely would that scenario have been just a couple of years before they met? And how much difference did their approach to that first meeting make?

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