American writer and activist Maya Angelou observed, "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." What does this have to do with running a company? After decades of coaching hundreds of small-to-mid-size businesses in transparency and partnership management, I don't find myself working with companies. Corporate personhood aside, I find myself working with people.

In my business coaching, the goal is always to help companies redefine their relationship to the people on the payroll--to treat them as trusted partners, and to get them economically engaged in the business. But no company is an island. It is dependent on good relationships with its customers and its suppliers, as well as its employees. It resides in a particular community, and its actions affect people in that community.

A company can treat any or all of these stakeholders as partners and doing so is likely to help its business a great deal. Let me give you an example from my own experience. This story is captured in the forthcoming book, Partners on the Payroll, written by myself and John Case, but we wanted to share it here first.

Wellman, located in South Carolina, is a unique company in many ways. It is the largest employer in the small town of Johnsonville, employing 2,500 workers at its peak. The company has a patented process for recycling the nylon from used carpet that would otherwise end up in a landfill--it instead becomes nylon pellets that are used in injection molding machines. One common application is the manufacture of automotive parts.

Most nylon is made from petroleum, and at the time oil prices were rising. This fact, plus a growing interest in recycling, made the fundamentals of Wellman's business very attractive. But Wellman, as my brother Bob discovered one day, was in bankruptcy.

Bob's career was fixing troubled companies, and Wellman would be the largest one he had tackled to date. Working with the private equity company J. H. Whitney, he purchased Wellman out of bankruptcy in 2006, for just under $20 million. The biggest problem, Bob felt, was the company's management. He called and asked for my help.

I focused on sales and marketing, while Bob concentrated on plant operations. The sales team, based in Detroit, seemed to have no common focus or direction that was consistent with the company's strengths. The situation was so bad that one of the sales staff, paid on salary, was spending most of his time selling for the competition. It became clear that the sales managers had to be replaced.  

I agreed to fill in as VP of sales and marketing, scaling back my coaching business for a while. Bob was working his magic at the plant. It took some time, but pretty soon costs began to drop and the plant's output began to increase. In fact, production increased so much that we needed to find more carpet to recycle. Overall, we were only capturing 3 to 5 percent of the total volume of used carpet. Most was still going into landfills.

Our supplier, however, had a distribution problem. That company was not set up to double or triple its volume. So Bob began working with the company as a partner.

He explained Wellman's need for substantially increased volume. The supplier was well connected with the carpet companies, but it was not well capitalized. Bob suggested that he could set up distribution centers, so the supplier could focus on getting the used carpet from the homes and offices to the local distribution center. Wellman would build and staff the distribution centers, taking care of getting the product to Johnsonville. In other words, both companies would play to their strengths.

The plan worked, and before long we had all the used carpet we needed. Now that we had more capacity, the bottleneck was back to sales. Could we increase customer demand to match our increased capacity?

It was Bob's turn to put the heat on me. Getting approvals from the big automotive companies, especially Ford, was taking years. But I had an idea. We happened to be heading into the annual strategic planning process we had instituted. Just as we partnered with our carpet supplier, I suggested we partner with Ford.

We asked Ford to participate in our strategy meetings, providing us with an unfiltered "voice of the customer." And since it was quite a trip from Ford's headquarters in Detroit to Johnsonville, we suggested we start by giving them a complete tour of our 600-acre campus.

We let our operations team know that we would be showcasing Wellman's capabilities to our most important customer, and Ford brought a team of engineering, quality, and purchasing staff.  Most had never been to our facility. They had no idea of the scale of our operation, our quality procedures, or our technical capabilities. At the strategy meeting that afternoon, the Ford people spelled out their priorities, described what they wanted to see from suppliers in general, and specified what they were most interested in, particularly as it related to our flagship product.

At the end of the meeting, the head of the Ford team rose to speak. He said, "I have been working at Ford for more than 25 years. I have never had one of our suppliers invite us to participate directly in their strategic planning meeting. Your level of candor and openness are impressive. My sincerest compliments to the Wellman team. We need to be doing more business with partners like this."

Everybody at Wellman was thrilled. And the attention we started getting from Ford--quality advice, engineering part approvals, and long-term contracts--soared. They remembered how it felt to be invited to the table, but that feeling was only the beginning.

Five years later, the company that had been purchased for under $20 million sold for more than $200 million. And as internal partners and owners, every Wellman employee benefited from the sale. Our supplier and customer partners also benefited. The beauty of it? We could not have done this without them.

If you build a community of trusted partners--if you foster transparency and learning, and if you share the wealth accordingly--you will almost certainly be building a company that moves people. And if partnership is your offering to prospective customers, buyers, suppliers, and employees: partners don't tend to leave. They remember you. And you're remembered for the right reasons.