“Look, when you get here early in the morning, just drop by his office and say Hi. And if he asks you out for drinks, go.”
It was one of the best pieces of advice anyone ever gave me. And it was the hardest for me to act on. It required a level of courage and a leap of faith I struggled with.
I was used to building relationships by working alongside people. I used formal interactions – meetings about getting the work done – to build relationships. The trust I built, leading and participating in cross-functional teams, created listening opportunities. In these moments, I learned what was important to people, how they liked to communicate, what their goals and strategies for their departments were. I was able to determine the best way for us to work together on things that furthered their interests and mine. And I was able to build trust that preserved relationships when there was a misunderstanding or when one of us couldn’t deliver on a commitment – which inevitably happens at some point.
When I finally took my director’s advice, and began dropping by her VP’s office on my way in, early mornings before his head was full of his day; when I finally accepted his invitation to an informal networking opportunity (“a drink” that was really more about listening and eventually talking than it was about drinking), it opened my eyes to a completely different way of building relationships with colleagues and, in particular, executives.
I was reminded of this the other day, when I read in this Fast Company article that executives often spend 50% of their time building and maintaining relationships. This may come as a surprise to many leaders. Because many organizations reward individual contributors with promotions for performing transactional work which can be accomplished independently, many leaders assume that they will continue to be successful if they delivery by performing activities instead of building relationships.
And yet, the successful leaders I have seen – the ones who deliver results – are the ones who understand the importance of building relationships.
The Pay Off
Building a relationship with my boss’s boss paid off in more ways than one. Gaining his trust – and learning how he liked to operate – made my life much easier when she suddenly left. Just as important, it taught me the skill of building an informal relationship with someone that I didn’t work alongside as a peer.
This is a huge piece of developing executive presence: the ability to treat an executive as another human being instead of treating them as if they are constantly sitting in judgement on you. (It’s hard to build relationships with someone who is constantly auditioning for you.)
I learn a lot by observing and I am constantly observing the leaders around me. I have seen leaders struggle with accepting the importance of relationship-building in success. They have big ideas and want to influence the direction of an organization, and yet they overlook the importance of relationship-building in influencing. Relationships and influencing share a common dependency: trust. If people trust you, they will allow you to influence them. And trust builds more trust: if they trust you when things are good, they will also trust you when things don’t go as planned.
But they can’t trust you unless they feel like they know you. And they won’t feel like they know you, unless you spend time building relationships with them. Which is why I made it a point, after my boss left and her boss promoted me into her position, to invest time in relationship-building.
I was very strategic about it: making a list of people who needed to trust me. Regularly carving out a significant chunk of time in my week to create informal moments where I could spend time with them. Listening more than talking. Learning about what was important to them. Thinking about how my team could help them achieve their goals and sharing that with them. Demonstrating my ability to get that done. Looking for opportunities to strengthen their connections with other leaders – people I knew that they didn’t yet – so that they could find synergies that would help them both succeed.
All this relationship-work left me less time with my own team, which meant I needed a really strong system of doing business, and I needed strong managers I could rely on to keep the system of doing business operating. So I could deliver on my commitments to the leaders I was building relationships with. Sometimes leaders are promoted without having this strong system of doing business or without managers who can keep it operating with minimal supervision. Sometimes you have to draw your head back into your department and focus on your team.
And that’s where the time you spent building relationships pays off. Because if you have built trust effectively, people will understand when you have to temporarily dive into tactics or execution. They will give you rope. But if you haven’t invested the time in building relationships – if you manufacture crises in your department either through lack of management skills or lack of trust in your team; or because you are uncomfortable building relationships and so are constantly having to fight defensive fires so that you just don’t have time to focus on building relationships – then you will find it very difficult to achieve your strategic objectives.
Creating Time for Relationship-Building
Many leaders struggle with balancing “getting stuff done” with relationship-building. Which is why it is important to learn to delegate effectively: executive leadership positions are specialties, the same way that coding is a specialty, or marketing. Success in these positions requires you to let go of what made you successful in other specialties and learn the skills that will allow you to succeed in this new specialty. That means delegating the things that made you successful previously, which means mentoring one of your team members to take those things on. It means building a relationship of trust with your team as individuals so that you can figure out who to mentor; and getting them to trust being vulnerable in front of you so that they are open to being mentored.
It is also necessary to have a strong system of doing business in the area that you are leading. If you are spending all that time building relationships, you don’t have time to spend making sure that your department’s plumbing is working. You need to know that the intake, processing, hand-off, approval, and delivery systems will keep working – that your people are working well together as a team – without your hand on the helm for extended periods of time. Because if you have to dive into the weeds and constantly get your team back on track, you won’t have the time or the objective distance to focus on relationship-building.
Because your strategic objectives rely on your ability to influence other leaders. Which you can’t do unless you build relationships with them.
The Peter Principle
I am far from perfect at this – like so many things, I am always still a beginner. I still struggle with translating my internal networking success to external networking. When I get nervous, I still sometimes catch myself “performing” in meetings with people I don’t have working relationships with. And I once lost the trust of a leader that I had worked particularly hard to earn – we both owned this breech – which made it very difficult to get anything accomplished. Sometimes you have to learn things the hard way.
The Peter Principle theorizes that you will get promoted until you reach a level where you only fail. I suggest that part of this “level of failure” is defined by how much time you are willing to spend building relationships – and your ability to build systems of doing business and managers who can deliver on the commitments you make to those you build relationships with.
The trick is to figure out the maximum amount of relationship-building and management competency you’re comfortable with in your job, and choose a role that allows you to rest there.
Until you are comfortable increasing your maximum.