Consequential Strangers

Why All Relationships Matter

How GM Lost Touch......And How To Stop It From Happening in Your Company (Or Your Life)

People Matter More Than Policies

General Motors went into bankruptcy because it had no respect for its consequential strangers–its employees, suppliers, customers, and colleagues in the same industry. In not so many words, that’s what the editors of The Week concluded in its Briefing, The Rise and Fall of General Motors.

"One division's cars often cannibalized the sales of other divisions. Its in-house parts companies overcharged the various car divisions, which were barred from seeking lower prices from outsiders. And the various divisions resisted consolidating back-office operations such as purchasing and payroll."

Acknowledging that high-cost labor contracts "crippled the company’s ability to cut costs," the author also cites "management’s arrogance and complicity" as a factor in GM's fall. Who could blame the average worker for feeling resentful?

Executives were literally walled off from the rest of the company behind the double electronic doors to the 14th floor of GM’s Detroit headquarters. They entered the building through a private basement garage and took their gourmet meals in private dining rooms. They rarely interacted with customers or even their own dealers, who knew firsthand their customers’ like and dislikes.

The story of GM mirrors how other ailing companies have lost touch with their consequential strangers: when employees and managers exist in two different, non fraternizing worlds, when one division doesn’t communicate with another, and when a company fails to look outside its own walls. They are insular; even consultants brought in act and think like the founders. Such companies are neither as profitable nor innovative as companies that collaborate across boundaries.

And it’s not just companies. Any group of people with a common goal–for example, a grass roots health organization or a spiritual center--can face a similar issue as it grows. It can happen to successful individuals, too. When a close-knit entourage, consisting of a few trusted friends, morphs into a branded enterprise with lawyers, handlers, trainers, accountants, and countless go-fers on the payroll, it makes it difficult for the person to connect. (See Was Michael Jackson Your Consequential Stranger?)

So what serves as preventive medicine?  How do then you stay in touch with the workers, the customers, the volunteers, the constituents, the fans who helped you grow or put you on top in the first place? Not surprisingly, the first step is to acknowledge that an assortment of consequential strangers is vital to the health of your undertaking. To stay connected, even as you grow, you have to innoculate your company against isolation:

Welcome diversity
. Seek out coworkers and colleagues of a different class, race, religion, ethnic background, sexual orientation, and age. Even more important, look for people who have different ideas.  Connect with other companies.  Building such "bridges" brings in new resources and a fresh perspective. Otherwise, ideas get stale. And as the story of GM illustrates, people become unmotivated, even bitter, in an environment that squelches innovation and cooperation.

Create a climate of collaboration. The bigger an organization becomes, the greater the need for policies and procedures. But you can never lose sight of the fact that, first and foremost, you need people. And you need them–the high status and the low, the right-brained and the left-brained–to work together. One way to nurture such a climate is to think about your company as a "social convoy"– a constellation of individuals, in and outside the company, who travel with you toward a particular goal. Imagine yourself at the helm, riding in a hybrid minivan down the center of the road, flanked by a handful of your closest advisors. In the outside lanes are employees–perhaps members of the same divisions riding together–as well as suppliers, customers, and others in your industry. In a traditional corporate structure (like GM's, which Alfred Sloan called "decentralized operations with coordinated control"), workers–if they are heard at all– have to go through appropriate channels to propose a new project or render an opinion of something already in the works. Conversely, in a social convoy cars can jockey positions. And thanks to the technology, it’s possible to communicate with all of them.

Be sincere.  Not that there’s anything wrong with profit and gain (as Seinfeld might have put it), but they can’t be your only motive. If you’re connecting with people only to better the bottom line, get more bodies into church, or convince people to buy your book, they’ll catch on. And they’ll probably desert you. As some might put it, "N.Y.P.A."–we’re not your personal army.  So just be...yourself.  Do it over lunch, on a street corner or in a café, on the phone or over the Internet. If you’re uneasy about the new media, you might be tempted to consult with one of the so-called experts out there, whose blogs and twitters promise to teach you how. And perhaps they can help, but no one knows "the best way" (or even the five best ways) to reach out to your people. Instead, why not spend social energy rather than money on expert advice? It might sound kind of old-school and not very flashy, but the best idea might be to just get out there, find a slice of common ground, and connect–one consequential stranger a time.

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Journalist Melinda Blau, author of Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don't Seem to Matter, researches and writes about relationships and trends.

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