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The Insider Outside

I remember it clearly. Another supplier trying to sell their course to me as I sat in my comfortable 4th floor Sandton office. 2 elevator rides, a swipe security badge and a receptionist named Violet all let me know that I was in “corporate”. When I started out in the working world I knew I wanted that world. Fast paced, important meetings, phones ringing. I got all that and more. And I was busy. So when the phone rang and another sales person tried to engage me in how their product would solve all my problems, I made short work of them so I could jump onto another internal conference call. I can’t remember how many emails I ignored, how many meetings I cancelled.

My Insider status changed nearly 3 years ago and I am now wearing the rather uncomfortable shoes of a provider. I say uncomfortable, because being an HR Insider does not prepare you at all for being an HR Outsider. The challenge is overwhelming and intoxicating at the same time. No one approves your spend, your time is yours, no one authorises anything. The buck really does stop with you. And the need to develop business is very real, resulting in this HR Insider needing to grow the resilience and determination to become a lead generator. And often receiving the distracted brush-off or dead-silence in response to a proposal or email from HR Insider potential clients.

I have never met Michelle Pienaar. But in a fit of business development enthusiasm I phoned her. She is the HR Business Partner at Construction Computer Software. She didn’t answer the phone. No surprise there. No one does. But I left a message and blow me over with a feather, she phoned me back! We had a chat and I sent her our introductory offer of a free leadership team assessment. She said she would review, consult and revert. And she did! I nearly collapsed.

I was so bowled over by a returned call, feedback and the polite respect and warmth she showed even though she declined the offer that I phoned her later to thank her. Turns out… she has run her own business before and knows exactly how it feels. She is an outsider on the inside.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I could have had that outsider experience before being an insider. The empathy it creates, breeds kindness, respect and even trying to help other journey’ers. All of us paddling our little boats in the same river. Some of us choosing to be out in the rough waters of entrepreneurship, where the waves crash and dunk. Mostly needing to be tethered to larger clients in the calmer, steadier conference-call filled waters of employment.

So how can you learn the secrets of being an Outsider, whilst being on the inside?

Tips for engaging with suppliers and providers:

Right up front let’s acknowledge that everyone is trying to navigate the difficult and uncertain times & that phone calls /emails / WhatsApp’s from suppliers is them doing their job, just like you are doing your job. They are not in your shoes right now, so unless you tell them what is happening, how will they know?

When a supplier contacts you:

  • Tell them what you know.
    • This might not be great news for suppliers, but have the courtesy of a response. E.g. Right now XYZ is not a priority and we will likely only relook at this in April/Sept/Oct/never. If a supplier has the systems in place to contact you again in April/Sept/Oct/ then it is a good indicator of their reliability.
    • This might be good news for a supplier and you are open to hearing more about what they do and you ask them to set up a time for a chat.

When you meet with a supplier, consider:

  • Values & culture fit – do they show-up, communicate and behave in a way that aligns with your corporate values and company culture?
  • Partner potential or transactional supplier – are they able to provide you with a range of services or products that will provide ongoing business value? OR are they offering a once-off product or service. What do you need?
  • Personal fit – do you feel supported and encouraged by being with them? Will you look forward to working with this team/individual or will you delay and cancel meetings because you don’t “fit” with them?
  • Team development – Are they able to provide a service/solution that you cannot provide internally? OR are they able to provide a service that could give exposure to team members for their growth?
  • Personal strength/passion – is the supplier working in an area that you are personally very committed to but either don’t have time for or don’t have the skills for?

If you would like to work with a supplier but there isn’t an obvious need or match right now, tell them. However, you might not be the only division / decision maker, so connecting them in with other divisions, stakeholders, your network contacts is of great value. If they passed your values and fit assessment, they are likely to be valuable in other divisions. A referral is great compensation for the time and effort of pursuing a meeting, preparing for it, travelling to it, pitching or presenting & likely adding incidental value through the conversation.

Maintain relationships with suppliers who are not currently providing you with a product or service:

  • Building relationships with suppliers takes time and effort. Suppliers who know your people, your business and you are trusted partners. We all know that there will be ebbs and flows in these relationships, but staying in touch and checking-in is a 2-way street:
    • Firstly because trusted suppliers don’t grow on trees, so keeping the relationship open and positive is good for you. When you need something (it will likely be urgent and the deadline is yesterday) you need to have built the relationship credits where suppliers are willing to drop everything and rescue you.
    • Secondly, your suppliers are connected to multiple businesses and likely have a keen sense of “the lay of the land” and can provide you with insights and trends outside your company and yet in the context of the geography you are working in.

The rules of engagement with current, future, and potential suppliers should always be:

Treat others as you would like to be treated.

Because who knows when your current Insider status changes to that of an Outsider.

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