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It’s all about the relationships

Russ Kathrein - Leadership

In the early 1990s, one of the must-read business books was “Made in America,” by Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart. In it he detailed things that made him successful, like engaging with his people, finding ways to make them successful, and challenging them to dream big.

One rule Sam had for his purchasing people was they meet with vendors in bare rooms with card tables, and vendors could not bring in anything. His intention was to keep a buyer from being influenced by a bribe from the vendor. What a lot of business leaders took from that rule, however, was in order to be successful, your people should not have relationships with their vendors. Everything needed to remain at a transactional level.

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I once worked for a company that embodied this principle. The funny thing was that everyone involved in purchasing realized vendor relationships were absolutely necessary, so we just hid our relationships and played along with the idea that the business would always go to whoever had the best price.

At another company I worked, the head of purchasing believed the exact opposite. He wanted us to invest heavily in vendor relationships, but with trust and integrity. We did not accept gifts or free trips, but we did invest our time and energy into making the vendor and us successful. If that meant bringing customers to the vendor’s plant and maybe doing something fun along the way, that was fine because during those trips you got to know your vendors and build relationships. When times were tough, these relationships mattered because the vendors did not feel obligated to help you—they wanted to help you.

The same holds true with one’s employees. Maybe the handbook says to not get involved in their lives, but having successful relationships with your team members is all about establishing trust. And how do you establish trust if you’re not willing to show interest in their lives or aren’t willing to share something about your own? Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Every time you interact with the people you lead, that interaction will potentially be something they’ll remember by how it made them feel. That doesn’t mean you can’t be demanding or passionate. Just be intentional about how and what you do, and when in doubt, choose kindness and compassion over anger and indifference.

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In my career, I have had people on my teams who left, and I have had to leave my teams for new or better opportunities. One thing I always told people was that, once you were on my team, you were always on my team. What I meant was that I had invested in those individuals and I would keep doing so even after one of us left. A number of my former teammates have taken me up on this, and not only does it make me feel good that I can still help contribute to their success, but at times it’s come full circle and has helped me.

Recently I worked with a company where both a former peer and a former employee from different pasts also worked. This did not give me any sort of free pass, but it gave us all a tremendous advantage because we were starting our new relationship from a position of trust that had been earned in our old jobs. This allowed us to make progress much faster than would have happened if we were all strangers. The best part was, as we left, they both showed why relationships matter. Without thinking twice, they each gave me a big hug and said, “It’s great to be working together again.”

Russ Kathrein is with the LBM Division of Do it Best Corp. based in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

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