Leadership Is a Relationship

As an executive advances in seniority, technical or functional skills become less important while leadership skills become much more important: higher levels of responsibility depend more on getting results with and through others and less on individual intelligence and horsepower. It’s not that knowledge and skills are unimportant for successful leadership—they absolutely are. But your ability to work with other people is equally important (the vast amount of research on Emotional Intelligence makes this case pretty convincingly), so if you want to be an effective leader you must focus a significant amount of your time and energy on building relationships.

One of our prior newsletters explored “The Forgotten Art of Stakeholder Mapping”: a Stakeholder Map is an extremely powerful tool for visualizing and understanding your most important relationships. Many readers wrote us to say the exercise was helpful . . . “But what now?”

Now you need to start deepening the relationships that are most important to your and your organization’s success. You can’t wait for your stakeholders to come to you—you must go to them. Go out and engage your stakeholders! When you reach out to people, or meet them in their own environments, you send subtle but powerful messages and create the opportunity for great outcomes:

You underscore that “I value you enough to seek you out.”

Whether it’s a five-minute chat about a problem, seeking a perspective, or just a brief catch-up, you’ve made clear that you care about me and my opinion, and that simple act is incredibly important.

How do you feel when your boss drops by for five minutes to check in and ask how things are going? Similarly, if you seek out mentoring from a more experienced colleague, the mentor usually feels positively about the interaction. People like to be consulted. It makes them feel included and is more likely to drive support, acceptance, and collaboration. We all have egos, and if you don’t come talk with me, then I may assume you don’t value my point of view or my needs.

You create the potential for more open connections to flourish.

Most of us work in meeting-centric cultures. So much happens in groups that we can forget the degree to which we manage ourselves, sometimes artificially, in formal group settings. When getting together one-on-one, people tend to be more relaxed and open and are usually willing to share more of themselves. Importantly, they are also a lot more likely to say what they actually think.

Getting in front of people one-on-one encourages them to engage with you. You’ll gain a sense of how they really feel about your ideas or initiatives. You’ll often get to know your colleagues in a way you can’t through meetings (even if you are regularly in meetings together), and you may uncover fact-based or emotional insights that will allow you to better navigate the relationship.

You interact with people in their own environments, where they are more relaxed.

Other people’s spaces are where they are most comfortable: behind their desk, in a position of dominance, and surrounded by their own stuff. Their guard is not up. If they need to show you something, they have it right there.

They have personal items on the wall and desk: totems, awards, photos of family. Personal cues can help you better understand them and shed light on other connection points: personal stories, shared experiences, themes to pursue to learn more about them. We are all complicated and multi-dimensional people, and you can build stronger relationships if you create multiple points of connection.

You control the timing and amount of interaction if you go to them. (They can’t get away!)

A slightly manipulative side of “seeking you out” is “I’m cornering you.” Let’s face it, with some of your key stakeholders you may need to get comfortable being a little bit of a pest if you want to deepen the relationship. If you come into my physical space you have my attention—I’m more likely to engage—and if nothing else I may give you what you want so that I can get rid of you.

So, what happens if, instead of seeking them out, you make your stakeholders come to you? Not much good. They may never come at all. But if they need time with you, you’re essentially conveying, “I’m more important and you need to come to me.” That may not be the best message to send. And in the case of those who don’t come to you, the result is that you’ll have less interaction and miss opportunities to build relationships altogether. You’ll have strong relationships with fewer people and likely send the wrong message about how you value others.

Building relationships is hard work and demands a significant amount of effort and time. There’s no “efficient” way to do it, and most of us sacrifice relationship building for what we erroneously think of as “the real work” (doing analysis, coding software, testing the product, writing PowerPoints). But without strong relationships—people who know you, understand you, and trust you—the “real work” may not have the impact you want.

Most of us already know everything written in this newsletter. But how much do we prioritize reaching out and building relationships in our day-to-day work? As a wise person once noted, “The time to build a network is not when you need a network.”

So dust off your Stakeholder Map; focus on a short list of your most important relationships in the next six to twelve months; and go find those people! We’d love to hear about your experiences: please drop us a note at newsletter@nevinsconsulting.com

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
—Maya Angelou