By Morag Barrett
My career started in finance, where I was a woman in a “man’s world”—at the time, most bank managers were men. I distinctly remember being told, “This is not personal, this is business.” The result of this mindset was that building professional relationships at work, even with the bank’s customers, was not a priority or a real focus. It was the numbers that were seen as the most important measure of success.
As my career progressed, I analyzed ever more complex business plans, and I repeatedly had to decide whether or not to lend money to support a company’s growth strategy. Increasingly, I came to realize that something was missing. If the numbers were right—if they were, as I was told, all that really mattered—why was it that businesses still struggled, or worse, failed to meet their numbers?
It turned out that the numbers were only part of the equation. Business is personal.
When I looked at the companies and individuals who were successful, it was because they focused on the numbers and the people. Think of it this way: You can have the sparkliest, newest product, but if you cannot get the people in your organization moving in the same direction and effectively executing your business plan, you do not have a successful and sustainable business. Relationships matter.
As an entrepreneur and published author leading a successful leadership development company, I believe that relationships matter even more. Having left the corporate world and moved from solopreneur to entrepreneur, I know that I could not have been successful without the professional relationships that surrounded me.
Having ally relationships at work—those trusted advisors who give you the encouragement and candid feedback you need to keep moving forward—is critical. Numerous studies have shown that strong professional relationships make you a better leader, more engaging to clients, deliver stronger results and produce higher quality work.
An article in the Harvard Business Review reported that strong social bonds don’t just predict overall happiness, they also have a significant effect on a person’s long-term career achievement, occupational success and, ultimately, income.
Improving the quality of our professional relationships is not rocket science, but it may as well be. We’re all so busy keeping our heads down and eyes on the prize that we can forget to look up and connect with those around us.
Here are three Dos—and, perhaps more importantly, three Don’ts—that can help you cultivate winning relationships:
DO: Identify who you need to connect with. Take a moment to write down three critical goals you must achieve in the next few months. Next to each goal, write down the names of your colleagues or other professional contacts who could help or hinder your ability to achieve those results. These are the critical relationships that require care and attention and the people with whom you need to proactively invest time with to develop an ally relationship. Remember: Your success depends on this person (and may be at risk if you don’t)!
DON’T: Focus on only one relationship. It’s easy to focus on your best ally or friend at work at the exclusion of your other professional relationships. After all, they “get” you, you have fun together and they challenge and encourage you to be the best you can be. However, by limiting your attention on one person, you may run the risk of not making new connections—and, as a result, not receiving the new advice or different perspective that could accelerate your success.
DO: Talk to strangers. OK, I don’t mean stranger-strangers, but rather the colleagues, members of NAWBO or attendees at an industry event who you don’t know. Branch out! It seems to me that the “Stranger Danger” talk we are given as children weighs far too heavily on us as adults. None us are in junior high. It’s OK to go and sit with the cool kids—in fact, you are one of the cool kids! Sit down, introduce yourself and find out how you can help each other to be more successful.
DON’T: Stick with the usual suspects. Many people put a lot of energy in cultivating relationships with those with the right title and seniority (the vertical relationships), but spend less care and attention on horizontal relationships. If you’re focused only on the “right” connections, your style will come across as inauthentic. Seek out new relationships in other companies and in other industries. You may just surprise yourself with the insights you gain—and the help you are able to give.
DO: Personalize the relationship. Face time is the most effective way to strengthen your professional connections. Whether you go for lunch, walk around the office together or simply stop by a colleague’s desk to check in, the personal touch makes all the difference. It’s all too easy to let the hectic nature of Monday through Friday flash past and forget to make time to invest in your professional relationships. Put it in your calendar if necessary—you’ll be glad you did.
DON’T: Multi-task. We’re all guilty of it: Checking e-mail while we’re on the phone, not actively listening during a conversation, looking through our Facebook or LinkedIn feeds while we’re grabbing coffee with a colleague. These all send the clear message: “You are not important.” Switch off the computer screen, turn away from the distractions or, if necessary, signal the fact that you are in the middle of something and schedule time when you can focus. E-mail can wait. People can’t.
Bringing It All Together
It’s not what you do that is the sole driver of your career success—it’s how you do it, and perhaps most importantly of all, who you do it with.
You cannot be successful in business, or in life, unless you are successful in cultivating winning relationships.
Whether you are the CEO of a major organization, launching your own business, a people manager or a technical leader, cultivating winning relationships is a game changer.
Remember: Business is personal and relationships do matter.
Morag Barrett, MA HRM, Chartered FCIPD, is a sought-after speaker, trainer and the founder of SkyeTeam. With 25-plus years experience in senior executive coaching and developing high-impact teams and leadership development programs across Europe, America and Asia, she intimately understands the challenges of running a business and managing people. Happily established in Broomfield, Colorado, with her husband and three sons, for fun, you can find Morag playing in the Broomfield Symphony Orchestra, where she is the principal bassoonist. In case you were wondering: her name is Scottish and means “great.”
Morag is also the author of Cultivate: The Power of Winning Relationships. The book is currently available as a hardcover and in Kindle edition via Amazon and in brick-and-mortar retailers throughout North America.