Don't burn your bridges

ITworld.com –

You've got a job offer paying twice what you're getting now -- or better yet, a venture capitalist likes your business plan and is going to give you loads of cash to launch a start-up. You're tempted to go to your boss, who is an idiot, and tell him what you think of him, dump your projects on his desk, and walk out.

Think again. Sure, you probably won't ever want to work there again, but there may be other reasons to maintain your connections with a former employer. The prevailing business model today is one of lean, mean operations and outsourcing everything but your core competency -- contrasting sharply with the older model of the '50s and '60s, which tried to do as much as possible in-house. Because of this new model, businesses, especially high-tech ones, have an ever-increasing circle of business partners and alliances. Besides sales and distribution alliances, you may have close alliances with other companies who handle your networking, data processing, human resources, payroll processing, and everything else that doesn't have to do with your core competency. A lot of these alliances get built through existing personal contacts and relationships.

The Japanese have been doing this for years, in the form of "keiretsu," or a circle of mutually beneficial business relationships. A true keiretsu is very formalized, and the circle is often closed. Members of a keiretsu often serve on one another's board; they may share research and development, or capital. A company may even be forbidden to sell outside of his keiretsu. This traditional model is not often seen in the United States, but some aspects of it are filtering through to American businesses, as the need for interrelationships with other businesses becomes more critical.

Chances are, in your new job, you'll come into contact with dozens, or even hundreds of other companies as you look to outsource critical tasks to them, or seek to convince them to outsource their critical tasks to you. A lot of these alliances are made because you had an established relationship with a company previously. It's even possible that your former employer may be your new client.

Jeff Kohler, CEO and founder of Reasonware, an online retailer of wireless products and services, left a management job at AT&T to launch his company last year. While he and his partner, also from AT&T, were developing their business, they were spending nights and weekends on Reasonware, in addition to long days at AT&T. "I gave my notice right as the first round of financing was being done," he recalls, expecting to be able to leave within a couple weeks and enjoy a little reprieve from the 20-hour days. But his boss at AT&T had a different idea, and asked him to stay for two more months. Even though Jeff had bigger fish to fry, he agreed -- and subjected himself to two more months of agonizingly long hours, little sleep and no social life. The reason: AT&T is a major player in the wireless market, and Jeff wanted to transform his employer/employee relationship into a mutually beneficial business alliance.

Although his partner had already left AT&T, Kohler felt that it wouldn't be right for both of them to leave AT&T at the same time. "You don't want to burn your bridges, especially when you're going to jump ship. You need to rely on companies like AT&T to work with, so I stayed for two more months. For both of us to leave would have been disruptive for them. We were the only two people in the state of Colorado that managed the retail consumer distribution. The relationship was too important, and we were trying to make sure we held onto it."

An insurance salesman in Dallas I once knew was decidedly low-tech -- he didn't even know how to check his own e-mail -- but he knew how to hold onto contacts. He had a card file for everyone he ever met. If a deal fell through, he always exited gracefully -- and on many occasions, would make another deal at a later time either through that same person, or through someone that person knew.

There's a lot to be said for a graceful exit -- whether it's from a job, a business deal, or a sales pitch. By leaving the door open, you're leaving open the possibility of future deals that may be worth even more.

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