Even in this digital age, the most important deciding factor in your career journey is to remember that leaders who build strong career relationships earn more trust and achieve better results with all their stakeholders. This also applies to communication leaders themselves and to the advice they may give as respected advisers to their organizational executives.
One of the most respected leaders in our time is Leon Panetta, who said in 2021:
“It is human relationships that determine whether or not you’re going to be successful”
– Leon Panetta, former US Secretary of Defence, CIA Director, White House Chief of Staff, and Member of the US House of Representatives, stated on 21 January 2021 during a media interview.
Panetta says our relationships with other people are such a vital part of our lives. During this time of stress for all of us, it is vital we reach out consistently to our friends, family and colleagues – our personal stakeholders. And we should be reaching out to our business colleagues also – internally within our organization and externally as well. This is even more important during times of massive societal stress as we experience in the current pandemic.
Speaking of relationships, let’s consider the Public Relations Society of America’s current definition of public relations:
“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”
This definition strongly corresponds to Leon Panetta’s quote, above, that maintaining good human relationships is key to success. Organizations consist of one or more people, and publics consist of one or more people, so Panetta’s quote applies to the vital role of relating to people in our society. And what is the foundation for building good relationships? It’s good communication, of course!
Great business leaders focus on mastering relationships
“Mastering personal relationships that build trust and create a collaborative work environment is central to leadership effectiveness in the digital economy. This skill set distinguishes great leaders from merely good ones, based on my interviews with C-suite executives in companies around the world.” This important observation was made by Dr Douglas Ready from the MIT Sloan School of Management in an article published in the March 2019 MIT Strategic Management Review. Ready went on to say:
As our work world becomes more virtual and our business models more digital, the key determinant of sustainable success is less about the power of a company’s algorithms than it is about the efficacy of the relationships we forge.
Positive relationships are the most important element of trust in leaders
If you have direct reports, your relationships with them require their trust in you. Three fundamentals are often the foundation of workplace trust, is the conclusion of experts Jack Zenger & Joseph Folkman in a 2019 Harvard Business Review article, after analyzing 360-degree assessments of 87,000 leaders:
1. Positive relationships. Trust is in part based on the extent to which a leader is able to create positive relationships with other people and groups. To instill trust a leader must:
- Stay in touch on the issues and concerns of others
- Balance results with concern for others
- Generate cooperation between others
- Resolve conflict with others
- Give honest feedback in a helpful way.
2. Good judgement/expertise. The extent to which a leader is well-informed and knowledgeable influences the amount of trust people have in that person. The leader must understand the technical aspects of the work as well as have significant experience. This means:
- They use good judgement when making decisions
- Others trust their ideas and opinions
- Others seek after their opinions
- Their knowledge and expertise make an important contribution to achieving results
- Can anticipate and respond quickly to problems.
3. Consistency. The third element of trust is the extent to which leaders walk their talk and do what they say they will. People rate a leader high in trust if they:.
- Are a role model and set a good example
- Walk the talk
- Honor commitments and keep promises
- Follow through on commitments
- Are willing to go above and beyond what needs to be done.
The research found that relationships are more important to trust than judgement or consistency. When it comes to trusting leaders, all three of these elements need to be above average, according to Zenger & Folkman.
Ways to build strong career relationships
Forming positive relationships is even more important during COVID-19 restrictions, according to leadership and communication specialist David Grossman. He made the following suggestions in an August 2020 blog to help leaders strengthen relationships and build positive results by:
- Managing by ‘walking around’ (or being present on video calls, these days) to see employees in their day-to-day environment. Ask them what they are working on and listen to their updates and concerns. Stop by the break room, if you’re on-site to say hello at a distance and take the opportunity to hear what people are up to. Take notes on items that need your attention, ensure there is follow-up and prompt response.
- I can personally vouch for this approach. Several years ago, when I was working on a consulting contract for the State office of a national billion-dollar engineering construction firm, the group CEO arrived from interstate head office to meet with local top management about the financials of a couple of major contracts. During a lunch break, I found him walking along the corridor, putting his head around office doors to introduce himself and chat with staff, including me. A rare event in any firm! I was so surprised and impressed, I still have a warm memory of the occasion.
- Scheduling regular touchpoints to engage with employees face-to-face via video. In addition to more formal Town Hall meetings, consider informal interactions such as a video lunch for people with birthdays each month, or a casual visit to a manager’s team meeting or huddle. Ask employees what they need to get the job done. When appropriate, share your goals and ask for their input. Above all, listen to what they have to say to show you value them and their contributions.
- Celebrating team and individual accomplishments. Everyone wants to feel appreciated and know that their efforts matter. When team goals are met or individuals go above and beyond what is expected, take the opportunity to personally thank the people involved, whether on a video call or by sending a personal note in the mail. This will help strengthen your relationships and reinforce the importance of their work to business success.
Any of these connection points offer opportunities to get to know employees personally. In addition to asking about work-related topics, observe their at-home, or on-site workspace to understand more about what they enjoy and what is important to them. Ask about a photo or something interesting in their work area, talk about a favorite sports team, about their family, or what they enjoy doing outside of work. Talk about things you have in common that will help them get to know you, as well as you knowing more about them. What are the big and little things that matter to them? What are they excited about?
Overall, evidence repeatedly shows us that when you build strong career relationships you earn more trust and achieve better results with all your stakeholders. You can read more about this in my article, “Stakeholder relations management is a key skill.”