For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard the expressions: “relationships matter” and “you have to network to be successful in business.” I never thought it was untrue, but in my industry, I thought what mattered most was technical capabilities. I knew relationships mattered to some degree, but believed we should be compared to our competitors based on our capabilities and the value we can deliver for the price. As an engineer and as an introvert, I also was never someone who put themselves out there simply to network or “schmooze;” it just didn’t feel authentic to me.
A few years ago, I realized though that single biggest mistake I’ve made as a small business owner is discounting the power of relationships. In 2014 when I participated in Detroit’s inaugural cohort of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses, the power of relationships and personal networks was emphasized. I remember thinking to myself, “yeah, yeah, I know.” I knew intellectually, but I didn’t really understand, and I certainly didn’t lean into it.
However, toward the end of the program experience, something happened to make me fully get it. I discovered some information about a contract we had bid on several years before. At the time, we were notified that our proposal was the best, we had the best price, and we were in line for the business. Well, we didn’t get the business. I was surprised and hurt but that’s how it goes sometimes, right? It was years later that I discovered that the winning contractor had a close relationship with someone on the customer’s team who advocated for them, even without the lowest price of the best technical proposal.
Why Relationships Matter
It was in that moment that I realized “relationships matter” wasn’t some platitude. We had done everything we could on the proposal, but I didn’t have the relationship, and that probably cost me the business. People don’t necessarily buy from the business; they buy from people. From that moment on, I decided my new business plan was four words: “Y’all gonna know me.”
I started finding ways to put my personal presence and business expertise on display, presenting more, just putting myself out there more. In my professional bio, I added: “sought after speaker” – even if in that moment those seeking me were school science fairs and Girl Scout troops. But, I had to start somewhere. As a true introvert, I made a decision to do one thing every day to work against my inclination to stay out of the spotlight. One thing every day that actually scared me.
Despite self-identifying as an introvert, I can’t help but also wonder how my experience as a Black woman in business also contributed to me eschewing relationship building. For most of my career in corporate America, I saw relationships pay off for others, but rarely for me. Before founding Walker-Miller Energy Services 20 years ago, I spent 18 years in corporate technical sales. Each year I met my goals and was told by management to keep doing what I was doing. Yet, during those 18 years, it became apparent to me that there was no viable path for me to progress. I spent so much time and energy trying to get people to see me as an astute business person who was also a good person, but most couldn’t get beyond seeing me as a Black woman.
How Relationships Build Values
Leaving corporate to launch my own firm was less an act of courage and more one of necessity for me. But realizing some 15 years later that I needed to reinvent myself was an act of courage and driven by necessity. So I worked to put myself out there and I began to see that making new connections, developing my professional network, and building relationships was more than just schmoozing, it was about lending your personal power and social capital to help others; and that in time others might offer the same back to you. Not in some transactional way, because connections and networks aren’t finite resources. But by putting myself out there more, by creating more authentic connections and relationships, I created more possibilities for myself and my company and for others. The biggest factor in the success my business has had in the last five years is me being open to changing. I learned I couldn’t create the company the market deserved and demanded by operating on my own in a silo. You win when people want you to win. The way you build a community of people who want you to win is by building relationships. That’s the biggest difference in my 2015 company versus the company I have today.
This change in me also helped transform our company culture. We’re now known for our culture of “kind excellence” at Walker-Miller Energy Services. Learning how to create an authentic and distinctive company culture was one the biggest takeaways from the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program. When I graduated from the program, I was inspired to create something different. I was convinced that Walker-Miller Energy Services could be, and actually must be, a place where both a sensitive, introverted Black woman and a confident, gregarious white man could be successful, feel valued, and bring their full selves and potential to their jobs every day.
We adopted an operating model in which every decision we make is viewed through the prism of our core values. Value #1 for us is: Boldly Go. Not only is this important to our culture, but it’s #1 to remind me to boldly go as Carla every day. It’s my hope and goal that everyone in our company is encouraged each day to boldly go.
How Relationships and Values Evolve
The pandemic certainly tested our commitment to our values. Early on in 2020, the state of Michigan had a two-month mandatory shutdown. My leadership team and I decided that to truly live our core value of “inclusive stewardship,” we couldn’t lay off or furlough anyone, as most of our competitors did. At the time we had no idea how long the shutdown would last. Every Friday for five excruciating weeks, we had an all-team meeting to encourage each other in the face of uncertainty. In these meetings, we would advise the team whether we would be able to pay them for the next week. Even with our competitors laying people off, we were determined to keep our remarkable team. The questions we asked each other each week were, “Are we who we say we are? Are we truly the stewards we profess to be, or just employers?” We knew we had the team we needed to run into the future with, and equally clear that our team members couldn’t afford not to have their checks, so it’s what we had to do. I coined the mantra, “Courage is a renewable resource,” which sticks with me today. We leaned-into our humanity for 5 weeks, and thankfully, on week 6, our federal PPP loan was approved, and we knew we would be ok. We embraced our team, and the bond between us is unbreakable – none of us will ever forget the painful, disorienting experiences of the 2020 COVID spring.
Surprisingly, this last year has been a season of growth for us: financially and culturally. The racial justice movement activated by the tragic murder of George Floyd placed the subject of equity in its rightful place as a critical business conversation. Our company has had more opportunities to partner with majority companies as they commit to increase opportunities to work with companies owned by Black people, people of color, women and other marginalized groups. These changes are good for everyone.
In a period of unprecedented opportunity for small businesses, each owner has the burden of selling themselves. As business owners, we are always going to be the best advocates for our brands, steeling ourselves for the tasks at hand, calling on our internal courage every day. I’m still a work in progress, and my natural instincts are still introverted. But the commitments I made years ago to put myself out there a little more each day, even in the face of fear, have made all the difference.
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