Build Essential Relationships

Video Conference with Team

This article is the fifth in the series, Making Things Happen, where we are exploring the habits that high-performing managers and exceptionally effective executives use to create unique momentum, advance their key metrics, and deliver big project completions over and over. In the last article, we explored the negative effects of micromanagement and perfectionism by exploring tactics for staying out of the weeds

This segment focuses on the value of essential relationships for effective management, exploring approaches for creating a strong internal network that helps you organize and streamline work, expand your strategic and operational focus, anticipate critical issues, and drive key results with high impact. 

Building Connections 

More than anything else, leadership is about relationships. The quality of the relationships each leader creates with her team, her boss, her peers, colleagues, and clients is central to how effectively she can get things done and achieve long-term high performance. 

The idea of building a network is hardly novel; it is easy to find articles, books, presentations, and Tweets on the topic. As of December 31, 2020, LinkedIn has more than 760 million users in its platform for professional networks. Of those, 260 million users are active on the site at least monthly, and more than 104 million interact at least daily. Common professional networking goals include career growth, knowledge exchange, references, and so on. The idea behind this sort of networking is generally to create relationships that help expand your professional knowledge, capability, and reach

Internal networking receives far less media attention however, though it is much more directly related to team productivity, performance outcomes, job satisfaction, employee engagement, promotion, and a variety of other factors that roll into effective leadership. 

In their 2016 HBR article, What Great Managers Do Daily, Ryan Fuller and Nina Shikaloff explain that managers with large, active internal networks tend to have significantly more engaged teams than their less well-networked counterparts. These highly-networked leaders’ employees also tend to cultivate broad internal networks of their own, engendering greater team performance. Research has shown that strong internal and professional networks are characteristic of top performers in sales, software companies, a global IT firm, Google, and several other contexts including leadership roles. As an added bonus, managers who build strong internal networks and encourage their teams to do the same may also reduce the likelihood of turnover by as much as 140%

Leaders who build networks not only create resources for solving problems, they increase transparency within their organizations by breaking down information stovepipes and silos. As Christina Thompson explains, good internal networkers “avoid solving the same problem twice, better understand their unique roles, and know the appropriate channels for questions—all saving time and increasing performance.” 

More focused than your broad professional network, a purposeful and healthy internal network is an essential ingredient in great performance and sustainable momentum. 

Essential Relationships

Building positive relationships is perhaps the most crucial element of leadership work. According to Dan Rockwell of Leadership Freak, “You’re an individual contributor—not a leader—when you work in isolation.”

What’s more, quality essential relationships must be built on respect, trust, appreciation, and communication. Essential relationships cannot be created with isolated conversations; they must be intentionally cultivated and then carefully maintained.  Unlike professional networks that may begin by swapping contact information at a conference and loosely maintained via social media, strong internal networks are the result of regular, active communication and interaction. 

Your team members are perhaps the most important individuals you can prioritize for relationship-building. Gallup research provides strong evidence that the most effective managers are those that build relationships as coaches rather than bosses. Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor; Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity (paid link), advises managers to build relationships on two dimensions: caring personally and challenging directly. Building relationships focused on individual and team engagement, clear expectations, individual wants, needs, and interests, and insight on talents and strengths must be a manager priority. Regular communication that gets to the heart of each of these is crucial to building strong relationships here. In practice, this might look like dedicated weekly check-ins, ongoing instant messages, regular team huddles, and a climate that welcomes open discussion.

Your boss and leadership team relationships should also be key elements of your internal network. Finding ways to support your leadership, consider operations from your boss’ perspectives, or providing crucial upward feedback can not only help foster true win-win solutions to problems, but facilitate true strategic alignment in your organization. Building “smooth, productive relationships with higher-ups” also prevents you from falling into the trap of incorrectly assuming your work will speak for itself, reports Sue Shellenbarger. Making your supervisors’ work easier is a habit that fosters more seamless work, informed decision-making, and the communication that keeps you in the loop on big decisions, upcoming changes, or potential opportunities. 

Your peers, colleagues, and counterparts should not be left out of any discussion on building effective internal networks. Reaching across organizational lines to build relationships with counterparts breaks down silos and information stovepipes to consistently innovate solutions or system improvements. Though building these relationships is sometimes negatively called “playing politics,” partnering with leaders in other units can be the catalyst for continuous improvement. Effective internal networkers “create connections because they believe that reaching out to others will help all involved, including the company,” explains Jennifer Miller of SkillSource. In addition to simplifying work that crosses teams, some of the most promising opportunities and business process innovations come from what Tiziana Casciaro, Amy Edmonson, and Sujin Jan term “cross-silo leadership”: horizontal teamwork that enables systems thinking. 

For example, actively collaborating and regularly communicating with Bob, the Guru of the Finance Team, creates the sort of relationship that lets you send a quick DM asking for help on a problem with your company card reconciliation at the end of the month. The fix likely creates a win for both of you as the error is corrected right away, and doesn’t create a follow-up item for Bob after close-out. It might also alert Bob to a systemic problem that is affecting others as well, enabling early resolution.

Similarly, maintaining a great working relationship with Kate the Recruiter Extraordinaire in HR gives her the insight that lets her more effectively screen applicants for that elusive skill you need on your team. The relationship here makes both your work and hers a smoother, more efficient selection process. 

Where do I start?

Great internal networks and essential relationships are the result of mutual connection and positive interactions that build over time. Creating a strong internal network is not something that can be done overnight. However, communication and work habits focused on building purposeful, authentic relationships can quickly grow into strong essential relationships. Consider the following tips as you look to build or strengthen your internal network. 

Become a resource yourself. Look for opportunities where your subject matter expertise might add value to a project or collaboration. Keep your door open for questions and contribute where you can to cross-team projects. 

Find ways to genuinely connect. Take the time to get to know people. Learn about their goals, past achievements, personal experience, teams, and perspectives. Work from common ground and mutual interest to create genuine and authentic relationships. 

Look for opportunities to create partnerships. Great internal networks are strengthened by win-win partnerships rather than just trading favors. Focus on streamlining work, creating great collaboration, smoothing communication, innovating, or fostering interdepartmental relationships in general. 

Actively recognize and talk up others’ accomplishments. Openly applaud great performance among your team and within other departments. Send notes of recognition, give shout-outs on social media, and offer kudos in meetings. Give credit where it’s due and highlight especially those collective achievements that deliver a meaningful win for the organization overall.   

Keep your communication inclusive. Actively avoid letting exclusive we/they or us/them narratives into your dialogue, and discourage them on your team. Encourage perspectives and language that reinforces a climate of respect for other individuals and teams throughout the organization. 

Encourage network-building on your team. Champion relationship-building and coach your employees to nurture internal networks of their own. Make introductions and suggestions where you can, and model great networking whenever you get the chance. 

Maintain an ongoing dialog. Stay in touch with your network. Set up regular reminders or calendar blocks to check in where packed schedules might otherwise prevent regular communication. Don’t hesitate to send thank-you notes, holiday greetings, or occasional “how are you?” messages when you haven’t heard from a colleague in a while. Even internal network contacts can become distant if they only ever hear from you when there’s an immediate work need. 

Final Thoughts

Building essential relationships is a core task for any manager. Strong relationships and partnerships at the team, leader, and peer levels create the sort of sound internal network that enables great performance.  Relationships are not instantaneous however, they should be built, tended, and championed over time as a cornerstone of great performance and positive organizational culture. 

What are your tips for building essential relationships? 

Looking for more ideas and information?  Check out the Leadership Habits Bookshelf for recommendations!

Image by Jagrit Parajuli from Pixabay

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