A couple years ago, someone near and dear asked me to address a question: “Where is the line between colleague and friend?” I didn’t have an answer for her, as it’s a line that I’ve been trying to figure out myself for the past ten plus years.
In response, I did what anyone who doesn’t have the answer does.
I procrastinated (just like I did this time).
Then finally, I asked for help. A couple months ago I sat at my kitchen table with Annmarie Camp: my former boss, now very senior executive (though she would never say this about herself), and you guessed it: close friend.
When I try to capture this woman’s essence and explain her impact on me to those who don’t know her, it feels impossible. Directly and indirectly, her influence is peppered throughout this site (remember following the puck?). And more widespread than words on a page, her example has been stamped into the core tenants of my business and my life. (Lessons from Annmarie will be coming out in 2030. Kidding… maybe).
The point is: she’s brilliant. Not about business models and complicated technical things that one observes in a boardroom. She’s brilliant about how to be a human and how to connect with humans in business, which, shocker: drives exceptional results.
I love observing her work. Things that I overthink, like “Can I be real friends with a business partner?” are natural to her because her values of inclusiveness, rooting for the underdog, and leadership provide her the answer before she’s even posed the question.
Here’s a quick anecdote to tell you why Annmarie was the right person to ask about the tricky topic of friendship and business. Ten years ago when we were both working in NYC, one of our colleagues got married and invited Annmarie to her wedding. In their former jobs, they’d been colleagues at another company then both came over to AIG. Shortly after they worked side-by-side, Annmarie was promoted to manage her.
Maybe it was my too-serious-all-boundaries-up demeanor (actually, it was probably exactly that); but I was shocked. I simply couldn’t believe that someone would let her boss into something so personal. I realize now that this isn’t so uncommon, but it was baffling to me at the time. In fact, I explicitly had said to a friend (not a colleague ;)) that “I would never have people from work at such a personal occasion, let alone my wedding!”
Then, ten years later:
During the 11 years that I was her colleague and subordinate, I was a bit daft. For I didn’t even realize that she was building one of the strongest and deepest friendships of my life with me while it was happening. One year she’s giving me my annual review, another year she’s having a difficult conversation with me, and all the sudden: she’s reading from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin at my wedding in Greece. I had always striven to keep things down-to-business, and all the sudden (yet not) they couldn’t be more personal.
Even though I’m luckily on the receiving end of one of her many colleague-turned-friend relationships, I was eager to directly ask her about her line between co-worker and friend. Is her approach pre-meditated? Obvious? Have there been any unpleasant surprises?
I had a hunch that to her, how she makes friendships feels obvious and like “what other way is there?” However, the happy surprise that I got in our conversation was that the topic of friendship was simply a gateway to her underlying and non-negotiable value system…
Since this topic is a bit abstract, I wonder if we should kick off from the point in time when you were promoted at AIG. For the first time you were directly managing people who had been your colleagues and friends.
Oh yes, I hadn’t thought of that, and I’d suggest rewinding even more.
[In sales] my job has always required a lot of leading by influence. I’ve always needed people who didn’t report to me, to do what I want them to do, in order to hit my targets. People think of sales as getting others to buy what you’re selling, and to do that, I’m trying to lead sales people outside our company (brokers) by influence too. I have to create a situation where someone wants to be on my side. They want to hit the targets with me.
Doing so starts with getting to know people, and this is the part of work that keeps me going. I view getting to know people as an opportunity. The relationships that I’ve developed with my internal team and external brokers are a very real benefit of the job to me. I can find something I really like about nearly everyone I meet, and it’s fun for me to get to that core with anyone whom I encounter.
You’re so generous with that mindset; I don’t feel the same, and I’m working on it 🙂
Okay, that’s your opening: your work friendships come about because there’s something likable about everyone. You like finding that nugget, developing the relationship, and ultimately it leads everyone in that camp – whether internal or external – to want to achieve the same goal.
But, come on. It doesn’t always work that way. What about when things go wrong? What are the boundaries?
I had a situation years ago when someone working for me was hours late for work, then lied about why. I called him into my office and did not hesitate to be angry with him. I told him, “Do not mistake my kindness for ignorance.”
[Sidenote: you may have gotten the impression from my glowing love for Annmarie that she’s soft and warm – which is true. But she can also be super stern. She’s always respectful but is unwavering about sharing the truth through clear and direct communication. I share this from occasionally being on the receiving end ;)]
My husband owns his own business and has a team working for him, who he’s befriended, as well. He has a similar approach and articulates it as, “Don’t mistake my ability to have a positive relationship with you as weakness.” For both parties, you have to be able to separate business expectations from the friendship – then have crisp, difficult conversations when necessary and move on without a grudge.
In these two examples, I’ve been describing an employee-boss relationship. But this is paramount in client friendships too. In my personal life I’ve hired friends to do work for me, and there are times, when I’ve been the client, that I’ve had to call up my friend and say, “This is unacceptable work.” Both parties need to be able to give and receive that feedback as business people, then be able to put on their “friend hats” the next time they want to have drinks and get the families together. This is an operating principle to which you both have to (consciously or unconsciously) agree.
The prerequisite to all this is working with people you trust.
I could be going too Brene Brown here, but my mind is sliding from trust to giving. One of your philosophies that I’m embedding in my own business is “Give first.” You’ve always taught and modeled this.
Is the prerequisite to trust, giving first? And to giving first being vulnerable? And in order to be vulnerable, I think your underlying foundation must first be unshakable self-confidence.
True? Or have I been reading too many self-help books?
The thing that strikes me about this is: vulnerability does not mean weakness. Again, like my husband says, “Having a positive relationship with someone who works for me is not a weakness.”
The other thing I think of is that in order to create inclusion, which I care so much about, you have to expose where you’re vulnerable. This will bond you to other people and make you relatable and able to build up reinforcements where you need support.
Yes! When I worked for you, you’d frequently say, “Here’s where we fell down on x, y, z and I’m going to point the finger at myself first. Here’s what I didn’t do, and here’s our opportunity as a team…”
I remember once reading that when you stick out your index finger to point at something, your thumb’s natural resting place is pointing back at you. The same idea but said differently is when something about another person annoys you, it’s usually because it’s pointing out something that you dislike about yourself.
That idea has always stuck with me. If I focus on this thing about you without admitting that there’s a connection to me, I’m inadvertently building a wall and being defensive. If I link us together, I’m creating inclusion and alignment. This is why listening to listen (not to respond) is so important.
And how do I say this without sounding arrogant? I think that – I don’t know why – I have this innate inner confidence. And listen. There are plenty of things I’m not confident about. Yet, I’m lucky that at the core, I’m a pretty confident person which allows me to talk about my vulnerabilities and use them to connect with others.
This is making me think of something my mom cautioned me about a few times in my career: “Be careful around other women.” In fact, the time that she most recently reminded me of this, she said, “Julie, I know that you’ve had some good experiences and were lucky to have Annmarie as a boss, but she is not the majority of working women. She’s an exception.”
Hearing stuff like this makes my blood boil. Even though it was a private conversation between the two of us, by continuing to re-tell that narrative, we’re hurting women friendships, working relationships, and general female progression. Grr… Tell me something empathetic. Go!
I think that things started to slowly change with my generation, but your mom may be right for her and previous generations. Frankly, this idea is part of my drive to be inclusive and my love for feminism. When women stand out on their own, they’re the singular “token woman.” And this has created all sorts of [negative] perceptions and stigmas about powerful women.
Besides just liking people, this is another reason that I want to connect with and align myself with others – women and men. This is a way for women to elevate themselves to more power as part of a team.
Therefore, it’s one tactic that can be used to shed the stigma of the powerful or token woman.
In fact, here’s another philosophy that underlies how I conduct myself, “Shine your light on other people.” When we highlight other people and achieve things as a team, everyone shines brighter. It’s corny, but this is how we hit our [sales] targets.
To wrap up, let’s pull it all together. We’ve bounced between philosophical and practical, so how do we weave them together? What is the line between colleague or client and friend?
The bottom line is this: if someone is your colleague / client / business partner and friend, you must possess the ability to be objective about the skillsets and needs of the job.
You absolutely must make an objective choice when required. And the other person must be able to accept your choice. This is the cornerstone of why this works for me and has been an advantage in my career.
On the other hand, some of my greatest disappointments have been when people I thought were my friends didn’t accept my business decision.
One of the things I’m most proud of are my friendships that remain in spite of my business decisions.
Thank you, Annmarie!
PS – don’t forget to show your colleagues and clients a little love this Valentine’s Day.
Photos from Anna Pumer Photography