Virtually everyone agrees that building strong, broad relationships is a key for professional success, but many professionals (particularly those more technically inclined) struggle to do just that. While team building events, networking lunches and virtual chats can be effective tactics, it’s important for leaders to also look inward and identify habits to help them tweak how they approach daily interactions so they can foster stronger connections on a regular basis.
With a background in math and engineering working primarily in technical environments, I absolutely struggled with the “relationship side” of leadership. I was the classic “bull style” leader who tended to only call when I needed something and skip the chit-chat at the beginning of the meeting opting to dive right into a review of open action items. As my career progressed, I began to realize that something wasn’t quite working. While I could churn out deliverables with enviable precision, I struggled to build real relationships beyond a few close friends. Early in my career as an individual contributor, it actually wasn’t much of a hindrance. In fact, leaders sometimes fought to get me on their team because I’d developed a reputation as a great work horse, but as I ascended hierarchically and assumed broader responsibility, my task-focused leadership style wasn’t working so well.
While relationship building can feel intimidating to those of us who aren’t naturally wired for it, the truth is that the most basic building blocks are simply getting to know people and allowing them the opportunity to really get to know you. For those more relationship focused professionals with naturally high levels of emotional intelligence (EQ), this happens all the time during day-to-day interactions before a video call starts, during the virtual back-channel chat that often animates an otherwise dry team call or even during casual banter in the break room or elevator. But for those of us who might be more introverted, socially awkward or EQ-challenged, we may miss these small opportunities to incrementally build and amplify relationships with a broad range of people (including those outside our core network).
Early in my career, I discovered that I was naturally wired to be stronger on the task/technical side and would need to intentionally build my relationship muscle to achieve an optimally effective leadership style. To do that I adopted one simple habit that didn’t just yield amazing results but eventually helped me reprogram my approach towards relationship building first, task second. This one simple habit was transformative for me. Here is how it evolved.
I’d led a project for months with a remote team and noticed that I had a contentious, transactional relationship with one team member in particular. She regularly submitted her data to me late, and we pretty much didn’t care for one another. Once the project concluded I realized that my biggest mistake as a project manager was not taking the time to connect with team members individually. Determined to enhance my relationship building skills, I decided to make one simple change to my phone call hygiene. First, I brainstormed a list of 2-3 personal facts about each key person that I conversed with frequently. For this particular woman my list included…
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· American Idol – She absolutely loved the show and wanted to try out someday.
· Goizueta MBA – I’d graduated from Emory’s Goizueta MBA program, and she was interested in the program as well.
· Twinkles – She considered her chihuahuas (including Twinkles) her children and dressed them up on the weekends for competitions and other events.
I jotted these facts on a sticky note near my phone, then when I called her instead of simply launching into whatever I wanted (my natural inclination), I picked up the sticky note with her name at the top and proceeded to ask her about something on the list—not in a robotic or manipulative way but with sincere intention to learn more. While that habit might sound a little ridiculous for those who are more socially adept, it provided me the training wheels that I needed to begin to think “relationship first” more instinctively.
Particularly given the pandemic-induced roller coaster of the past two years, soft skills like empathy and relationship building have increasingly become viewed as absolutely critical for strong leadership. While this one particular habit can yield great results, it’s just one example of the type of habit leaders can implement to best fit their specific needs and work environment. Annual team retreats are great, but the truth is that real relationships are built incrementally through daily interactions. If relationship building doesn’t come naturally for you, don’t let that be your excuse for doing nothing. Find a habit that encourages you to connect regularly, and just do it.