What Every Business Builder Can Learn From Detroit About the Power of Relationships

In the past 60 years, Detroit has been dragged through a gauntlet of civic despair unmatched in scope and length. This is not news; the city’s decay -- the slow letting of its industrial heart's blood, the fleeing of more than half its citizens, the blight that has shuttered tens of thousands of homes and businesses -- has been covered extensively by the media.

So, too, have its recent attempts at recovery, which are not only more inspiring but also provide valuable lessons even for those of us who are not trying to resuscitate an entire metropolitan area. For what Detroit has done to—if not exactly bounce back then at least begin to—claw back shines a light on the critical role relationships can play not only in the general goings-on of an organization but also in crisis situations. From saving a virtually priceless collection of art to providing a path for small businesses to gain a foothold, relationship capital in the Motor City is being leveraged every which way. Here are three of the most significant takeaways from the city’s revival playbook.

1. Form cross-sector relationships.

This is the big one. Whatever triumph there is in Detroit's story has its roots in a meaningful collaboration between for- and nonprofit organizations. Pockets of the city have been restored and revitalized by a joint effort to nurture human (and intellectual) capital in those areas. Dan Gilbert, CEO of Quicken Loans, for example, moved his company’s headquarters to downtown Detroit to bolster the population numbers and help jumpstart the local economy, then provided further sustenance to the commercial ecosystem by opening a new start-up incubator and venture capital firm. And so far, so good. According to a recent New York Times article, small business owners in Detroit have been inspired by Gilbert. Lacking his working capital, they've leveraged grants and educational support from more than 50 nonprofit business organizations, opening shops on previously vacant streets and starting innovative tech firms. All of it has brought life back to the ghost city.

Corporations of any size, especially those in crisis, would do well to note the benefits conferred by removing industry blinders from one’s store of relationship capital. Mining cross-sector connections often yield more creative solutions, be they advisory or financial. Those stuck in any kind of silo risk missing opportunities, not only for growth, but also for quickly raising funds in times of emergency, finding the product idea that will turn your company around or hiring a leader with a different perspective who can pull your organization out of the mud.

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