Building strong relationships is key for workplace leaders

By Minu Ipe, Clinical Associate Professor


Identifying and managing relationships with critical stakeholders is the secret to navigating a lot of the pitfalls that derail otherwise well-intentioned leaders.

We have all seen those leaders who appear to get things done effortlessly where others struggle to make progress. Many successful leaders make this look easy but great relationships and effective stakeholder engagement is the product of focused and sustained effort.

Professor Linda Hill of Harvard Business School in her work on building relationship networks identified four key questions to ask as you start reviewing your relationships.

  • Whose cooperation do I need?
  • Whose compliance do I need?
  • Whose opposition would keep me from accomplishing my work?
  • Who needs my cooperation and compliance?

These questions are a great place to start as you map the relationships critical to your success as a leader. The next step is to honestly reflect on these relationships. In some cases, you may recognize that you don’t really know some of these individuals at all or don’t know them enough for there to be a meaningful relationship. Here, you have the opportunity to start building new relationships. If you already have a relatively good working relationship, then you might want to think about strengthening that relationship. If, on the other hand, you recognize that the relationship needs to be improved or repaired, you have some work to do.

As with all successful relationships, the key question is not “what can you do for me?” Approaching relationships with this orientation may help you build a network in the short term, but eventually these relationships will sour or wither away from the lack of mutual support. The key to successful relationships is to start by recognizing that human relations need investment.

Building relationships

As you start building relationships, work on identifying what you have in common with the other person. Go beyond just work goals to make connections. Consider hobbies and interests, where you grew up, family and children, travel experiences, etc. Reach out and be first to invite someone for coffee, lunch, or a meeting where you can get to know each other. Ensure that you actively look for similarities with the other person as well as things that are interesting about them in the early meetings. Investing your time and effort early is important to creating a foundation for a sustaining relationship.

Maintaining or nurturing relationship

A great first connection may not always lead to a great relationship over time. Working to maintain or nurture relationships is critical as you grow in your leadership journey. Look at the map or list you created. Are there people on the list you haven’t connected with recently? Are there some relationships you have taken for granted? If so, consider what you can do to maintain these relationships. It may be as simple as inviting someone for coffee, lunch or happy hour. Or you can share something that would be helpful to the other person. The basic idea is to let the other person know you are thinking about them and care about the relationship you have with them.

Improving or repairing relations

Being the first to reach out after a negative interaction is a good first step towards improving or repairing a relationship. Step away from the negative emotions associated with a person or an interaction and consider what you can offer: support, resources, ideas, etc. In some cases, you might need to muster the courage to have a difficult conversation to address the root issues that impacted the relationship. In my experience, these conversations are well worth the effort.

As leaders of teams, you should also consider relationships that are important to your team’s success. Have you built adequate relationships so your team can be successful at what they do? Are you a good role model to your team on how to sustain strong relationships?

Use the next week to create a little exercise for yourself. As you engage with people at work, stop to make note of your relationship with them. Do you need to build, nurture, improve, or repair relationships? Think about what you need to do and then go to it!