A few years ago, when I was the Executive Producer of a series of DVDs for teens on body image, self-esteem & the media, a member of our production team called me the “C” word.
It was all innocent enough. I was simply carrying a microphone boom to where we were going to be filming the next scene.
“Put that down!” Heather, the Production Assistant, demanded. “Or I’ll have to call you the ‘C’ word!”
Now I know some pretty nasty ‘C’ words and I had no idea why Heather would want to call me any of them.
I smiled at her and kept walking with the boom.
“CLIENT!” Heather squealed, placing her hands on her hips and thrusting one hip emphatically sideways. Then she stuck her tongue out at me and held it until we both started giggling.
“Give me a break,” I insisted. We’re all part of the same team.”
Then Heather handed me the grande-nonfat-one Splenda-latte that she’d picked up for me on her way to the set and I realized that by simple virtue of my label as “the client,” we actually weren’t on the same team.
I’ll be honest: I like being the client. I like that I’m listened to, I like that my ideas are valuable, and I like that people try to make me happy. Hell, who wouldn’t like being the client?
Fast forward a year or so to when I did a relatively short stint as a contract Project Manager at Publicis, a hot-shot advertising agency in Seattle. It was then that I fully came to realize that power of the “C” word.
The pulse of the office and of the work that we did was completely determined by the meeting schedule between our Creative Director and the Client (who was T-Mobile at the time). We were all hyper-aware of when those meetings would occur and we worked at a frantic pace to prepare for them, then caught our breath while the meeting was conducted at the client’s headquarters a few miles away, and then literally gathered around the elevator to immediately receive our marching orders upon the Creative Director’s return.
The Client might as well have been God.
‘Funny,’ I thought, ‘I never felt that kind of power when I was the client!’ But then, the Project Manager at T-Mobile probably had no idea the the kind of power s/he wielded behind the scenes at Publicis, either.
For the past two years, in my work as a Senior Project Manager with an agency that works almost exclusively on Microsoft projects, I’ve found a much more balanced experience around the “C” word, and I’m no longer befuddled by what appeared in the past to be a very unbalanced hot/cold, good-guy/bad-guy client working relationship.
Instead, my relationship with clients now is much more of a partnership. The master/slave approach has given way to a much more cooperative relationship in which there’s a give and take of ideas and a genuine desire to work collaboratively.(For the most part, anyway. There are still clients who think they're God and still agency workers who assume they're basically slaves.)
Sure, Microsoft is still the client – and a potentially daunting one at that. When Microsoft says jump, I still ask how high. But I firmly believe that, done right, business IS personal and that the best working relationships are also positive personal relationships. Because when things get crazy (and you can count on that with Microsoft), it’s not the intimidating corporate name or the big bucks that will guarantee that I’ll get things get done; it’s the relationship that's formed and the willingness (and desire, even) to go the extra mile for someone with whom you now have a personal connection.
I’ve completed a myriad of projects for Microsoft since starting this job well over a year ago and without fail, the most successful ones have been those in which positive personal relationships – yes, even (gasp!) friendships – have formed. It makes sense, too. Wouldn’t you rather work cooperatively and in partnership with someone, even if (hmmmm… especially if!) they're essentially paying your salary and keeping you employed? In my opinion, that’s one of the most important relationships to nurture.
One of these days I’ll write a post about my slightly non-conformist management philosophy. (“The most important thing a manager can do is to regularly ask his/her employees what they need to feel supported and to do their job well … and then to make those things happen, because happy, fulfilled employees are productive and loyal employees... ”)