Building Strategic Relationships Is Like Making a Grilled Cheese Sandwich

July 26, 2021

by Lawrence Perkins

I have a theory about grilled cheese sandwiches. Anyone can make one because there are only three ingredients: butter, cheese, and bread.

But, as simple as they are, we’ve all had a grilled cheese sandwich that’s out of this world. You can go to a restaurant and get a dish with two dozen ingredients and be less impressed than you would be with a truly exceptional grilled cheese sandwich. How does that happen?

To have a truly outstanding grilled cheese sandwich, you have to take those basic ingredients and apply intention and skill. Greatness in grilled cheese is entirely about the execution.

Building strategic relationships is like making grilled cheese sandwiches. The recipe is simple. But you have to have thoughtful preparation and follow-through to deliver a great result.

You should never settle for a mediocre relationship when a delicious one is in your grasp. Here are some techniques that will help you build the most scrumptious, satisfying, and fulfilling strategic relationships possible.

Realize that You’re Ahead of the Game

When I give talks on the power of strategic relationship building, many people start tensing up. Somehow, reaching out to people seems frightening. It doesn’t have to be! I’m not asking you to stick your hand out to a stranger.

Quite the contrary. I’m asking you to do one of the most prosaic, natural activities in your life. Every day, you talk to people, and you already have some sort of relationship with most of them. If you want to be at the top of your contacts’ minds, you don’t have to make any radical changes. You just need to extend the way of life you already have.

If you’re reluctant to reach out, it’s often freeing to discover how many people you already talk to on a regular basis. So let’s go through a quick inventory.

Open up your phone and thumb through your contacts. Then, think for a moment about how you keep track of the people you know. Are they in your phone, in Outlook, in an old school Filofax or notebook, or mostly in LinkedIn? Who do you see and talk to habitually? Who did you see and talk to in the past? Wherever you keep your list—and expect that you’ll probably keep them in several places, some only in your head—take a minute and literally look through the people in your life.

Whether you have hundreds of names on your list or a dozen people you appreciate greatly, seeing the names in black and white can be invigorating. You’ll see people that you remember from school. You’ll see people you used to work with, or do CrossFit with. Whatever. You’re already social. You’re already talking to people. You already have everything you need.

Remember, relationship-building is as simple as bread, butter, and cheese. You already have contacts. The success of your sandwich all comes down to what you do with them.

Take a Minute to Clean Up

Your contact list is the engine of your system. You’ll use it daily and weekly as a tool to create connections with the people you want in your life. Because of the ubiquity of using that list, I’d recommend you spend a little time periodically cleaning it up.

If you have someone you don’t want to talk to anymore (maybe an ex-girlfriend or -boyfriend, for example), go ahead and delete them. Your contacts list should be a place you go to feel good, not a messy place with complicated feelings.

As with so many other things, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Don’t go down the rabbit hole and spend weeks on this, but do take a minute to clean up extraneous contacts as you go. The pizza place you used to order from three apartments ago doesn’t belong in a list you’ll need to use today.

Just think about it: if your pans are crusted with scorched leftovers, or if you use a dirty knife to cut the cheese, your sandwich is going to be a lot less tasty. The best sandwiches come from a clean kitchen where you can easily find the tools you need. The same is true of relationships. If you’re organized and relaxed going into them, you’ll have a much better time. No mess, no stress.

Create Touchpoints

Connecting with people happens naturally every day. Turning those connections into relationships, however, takes effort. It takes a little courage and vulnerability to follow up, and to put yourself out there.

Every time you reach out deliberately to connect, that’s a touchpoint. Every phone call, text, email, or anything else you use to reach out and make a connection. (LinkedIn Messenger? Website contact page? Carrier pigeon? Go for whatever seems natural and nonthreatening.)

Touchpoints should spark a memory of the connection you made with that person, however deep or shallow. It’s a brief touch that reminds you both you’re interesting people and you like each other.

There’s something very personal about reaching out and connecting with another human. For one moment, you’ve found your way into another human’s brain in a positive way. You’ve had a point of contact across the cosmos, each thinking about the other for a brief second of time.

Touchpoints are often very brief messages. They are “Thinking of you,” “Hope you are well,” and “I remember that one time we got nachos and laughed about koi ponds.” They are brief moments that build communities and networks.

One of the things that makes grilled cheese sandwiches so great is that they are the quintessential comfort food. They make you feel warm and satisfied. They bring you back to childhood or other pleasant moments in your life. Touchpoints are the same way. The comfort and joy created by a touchpoint is at the heart of the most successful strategic relationships.

Nothing Is Tastier than Strategy and Intention

Just because a relationship is strategic doesn’t mean that it’s empty. In fact, nothing could be less true. If you’re strategic in making your grilled cheese sandwich, it will bring you much more joy than any slapdash sandwich ever could.

If you’re building relationships anyway, why not learn to do them well? Being just a little more intentional about that process can be the difference between an acceptable grilled cheese you threw in the microwave and one that brings tears to your eyes. It can also make the difference between creating a half-hearted relationship and one that’s durable and fulfilling.

There’s nothing hard here. But it still won’t happen by accident.

The preceding was adapted from Don’t Be a Stranger.


Lawrence Perkins founded what is now SierraConstellation Partners at age twenty-nine with few connections and very little capital. Lawrence grew SCP into a nationwide management consulting group serving nearly 100 large companies in their times of most dire need. Today, Lawrence is a recognized industry leader who’s spoken at major industry conferences and has been cited by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, CNN, CNBC, and the Washington Post. He is also the author of Don’t Be a Stranger: Create Your Own Luck in Business Through Strategic Relationship Building. Outside of work, Lawrence has built a remarkable life with his wife and daughter that includes interests ranging from reading and writing, singing and dancing, to cooking and running.