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Friendships in Business and Business with Friends

March 19, 2013

The other day I broke one of my major rules in life. In consequence, shortly thereafter, I broke another.

The first rule is: never do business with friends. Actually I have broken that one more than once, to the extent that I have come up with a qualifier:  it’s OK to make friends of people with whom you work or do business, but very dangerous to do business with people with whom you are first friends.

The second rule is: never send an email when you’re upset or annoyed. I teach this in just about every workshop I run on communications. By and large I stick to it. Except in this case I was revealed as a hypocrite. The consequences are in danger of proving the rule.

Here’s what happened. One of my business partners in Saudi Arabia needed someone with specific expertise for a short assignment. In the past I have often referred people to him. I don’t get paid for this. I do it in the interests of the relationship and because I enjoy helping people I know to find new opportunities. A long time ago I co-founded a recruiting firm that was pretty successful. I have no desire to go back to that business, but it left me with skills I occasionally use pro bono.

I contacted someone who has been a friend for many years. I will call him Simon, though that is not his real name. The friendship originally arose through Simon becoming the partner and eventually husband of an even older friend of my wife. As is often the case, our wives are the conduit of the relationship. They fix up the get-togethers and we husbands happily fall in with the arrangements.

Simon is well qualified and extremely bright – which are not necessarily the same thing. He has a sardonic sense of humour matched only by Rowan Atkinson.  My daughters love him – he has them in stitches of laughter. A few hours in his company are never boring. He is also a natural teacher. He has the gift of explaining things simply.

So when this opportunity came up I sent him an email. He came back to me with a list of questions. He qualified his interest by saying that he was waiting on another assignment that was due to start in April.

We talked on Skype – he is in England and I’m in Bahrain. By the end of the conversation he seemed sufficiently interested to send me his CV, which I forwarded to my partner in Saudi. The partner was enthused, and asked me to send him Simon’s passport details so that he could process a visit visa.

Things went downhill from there. The day after, he sent me an email saying that he “had now had a chance to think about your offer”. He felt that the rate for the job was uncompetitive, and that there would be too much preparation involved. He ended by saying “these are my reservations. We can talk again tomorrow.”

This email came during a busy day. I’m experienced enough to read the implication of Simon’s message, which was that he was not interested, even though he didn’t say so specifically. I was a bit cross, because I was trying to do him a favour, and he implied that I was making him an offer when I thought I’d made it clear that I had nothing to gain from the outcome. Why didn’t he just say no, instead of continuing an unproductive dialogue?

So I sent him rather a direct email in reply, saying:

“My friend, let’s not beat about the bush! You don’t want to do it and that’s fine. I have no interest in this – I was trying to do my partner a favour, and I thought you might find this a bit of an adventure. The money is not negotiable I’m afraid. So no worries, I’ll let him know you can’t do it. Happy to talk tomorrow if you want to discuss further, but I suspect your mind is made up for all the reasons you’ve given. Not a problem!”

A day later he replied: “OK Steve, let’s leave it there”. I signed off in a more conciliatory tone, hoping that a more suitable opportunity would come up soon.

The thing is, I regretted sending that email as soon as pressed the button. I was mildly annoyed, and I had broken my rule never to send an email in that state. What’s more, I wrote it in business mode. I wasn’t thinking of him as a friend, but someone who was in danger of wasting my time with unproductive discussions. If I’d paused for an hour or two, I probably would have ended the dialogue with a simple “thanks, I think this one is not going to happen, so let’s try again in the future”.

The other lesson learned is that one should never cut corners in communications. I was busy. Perhaps I made an assumption about Simon’s intentions that I should have tested more thoroughly in the phone conversation. There’s an interesting concept called the Ladder of Inference that applies in this case.

And now I’m left with the feeling that the exchange has left Simon and me with an altered – perhaps damaged – relationship. I’m sure it can be recovered, but testing the friendship in this way was unnecessary.

Perhaps one of the reasons why not doing business with friends is a principle that holds true much of the time is that most friendships work within a specific framework. Bust the framework, and you find out things about people that you would rather not have known, and perhaps didn’t need to know.

You could argue that deep and lasting friendships only endure through occasional stress testing. You go through things together – good times and bad. You’re there for them, and hopefully they’re there for you, with emotional and practical support. But my experience is that these are relatively rare relationships, especially if you pour much of your energy into your marriage and your kids. Keeping up lifetime friendships with others outside the nuclear family can be tough. Many are called, few are chosen.

This is also why people develop strong bonds with work colleagues. If they are close colleagues, they spend as much time with them as they might with partners and family. Work-related bonds are tested all the time. It’s not so easy to fall out permanently with colleagues unless you leave or they do.  In my case, walking away has rarely been an option, since for the past twenty years I’ve been a business owner rather than an employee. So if there are problems, it is in the interest of the business to sort them out and move on.

With some colleagues the bond over time becomes so strong that the relationship gradually turns to friendship. I rarely let this happen while the person is still working with me. But when the business relationship is over, if I admire their personal qualities, I will try and stay in touch – not because they might be useful to me in the future, but because I like and respect them.

And yes, sometime I end up doing business with them again. After all if you have witnessed their trustworthiness, resilience and talents over the years, why not? At that stage you can say that the person is both a friend and a colleague.

There’s a word that has rather fallen out of fashion because of its military and communistic connotations. But taken out of its modern cultural context, the word comrade, and its less culturally specific noun, camaraderie, best describes the shared values, empathy and behaviours that can transcend the barriers of business relationships and personal friendship.

I can only think of one person apart from my wife that I would describe as a true comrade. He knows who he is. As I said, many are called, but few are chosen. There have been others, but they have fallen away over time.

One of my less endearing qualities that has increasingly taken hold over the years is that I’ve become less inclined to suffer fools gladly. Age is supposed to mellow you. Not me. Having reached an age when the top of the hour glass has less sand than the bottom, I’m less prepared for the remaining time to be wasted. I’m not suggesting that everyone who wastes my time is a fool, though I’ve encountered plenty of them in my career.  It’s just that I’m a little more ruthless in making judgements about whether a discussion, an opportunity or a relationship is going anywhere.

Here in the Middle East, distinctions between different types of relationships often blur, at least in the perception of non-Arabs. When Arabs refer to a person as a friend, they could be talking about someone who is a work colleague, a business acquaintance or a personal friend. Is that because they are unable to describe the subtleties of different relationships in a second language, and end up with catch-all word? Or does the Arabic language reflect a fundamentally different attitude towards friendship which any foreigner coming to the region needs to understand?

That will be a subject of a future post.

Back in the real world, the unnecessary testing of a friendship reminds me once again that I must practice what I preach.

  1. stariribar permalink


    Comrade Steve we know from learning
    That salt mines offer little earning
    This draws us to the corporate spike
    Where friends and fiends can seem alike

    Please do not despair of dialogue
    An ancient art oft lost in fog
    Did Mr. Bean feign interest?
    Or just respond to a request?

    Quick quick hurry is de rigueur
    Unless you want to be a bore
    As business in these straitened times
    Makes suffering fools a major crime

    Yet what is said and what is heard
    Plus tweets from electronic birds
    Asks if we still communicate
    Or simply discombobulate

    So friends on issues shouldn’t dwell
    As fiends will always cast their spells
    Instead they should try to learn
    How fiend from friend they can discern

    Učiti, učiti was Lenin’s creed
    But Burns before him bade us heed
    “O would some power the giftie gie us
    To see ourselves as others see us”

    • Thank you David! A message Boris Berezovsky perhaps should have taken on board at some stage…. assuming he spoke Croatian.


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