You can work hard, but you won’t be valued as an integral part of your organization unless leaders and colleagues know who you are and are comfortable working with you. Teamwork, client service, information sharing, problem-solving—all these activities require individuals to interact with one another productively and with as little friction as possible. Given the importance of these interpersonal activities in today’s workplaces, people who have developed relational skills, who have the social grace to navigate a broad spectrum of interactions and create comfortable and trusting relationships, are the most sought after. It’s only through exposure and connections that others know to call upon you for your expertise. It’s only through relationships that you learn whose influence and support can help you to accomplish an objective. And most important, relational skills enable you to work with others for mutual gains.
Here are three tips to be more strategic and intentional in how you expand the breadth and depth of your relationships in order to expand your opportunities and deepen your impact.
1. Connect with others. Relationships don’t happen automatically. You have to put effort into making connections. For many professionals, initiating a conversation is the primary stumbling block. Think about what’s interesting about you. In advance, prepare an introduction of yourself that conveys the essence of what you have to offer—your job, career interests or personal attributes. Try to make it memorable.
2. Shape mutually beneficial relationships. A relationship, of course, is much more than being acquainted. It is an association that builds gradually when people spend time together and get to know one another. You have much more control over establishing the basis for good working relationships than you realize. By following these four principles, you can shape your relationships in a manner that improves the odds of a mutually beneficial connection:
- Determine shared objectives.
- Clarify the advantages of cooperation.
- Take a risk on relationships.
- Build trust over time.
3. Be strategic in building personal connections. Building relationships is about securing the connections that grow your social capital—your ability to exchange knowledge, guide the flow of information, secure resources and in general tap into a reserve of cooperation, problem solving and creativity. Nurturing these valuable connections requires time and energy. Being strategic in your approach maximizes the impact of your relationship-building efforts.
The Characteristics of an Effective Network
As you plan how you will connect with others, consider the four characteristics of an effective network:
- Breadth. Do you have connections at many levels, inside and outside your organization? Can you rely on support from your peers, your leaders and those more junior to you? Also consider whether your network gives you access to a wide variety of perspectives and experience. If everyone in your network shares your background, socioeconomic status and politics, you’re likely to be missing valuable input.
- Quality. Too often, we stop at the number of our connections when we think of networking. However, when you’re focused on relationships, not just networking, you’ll also want to evaluate the quality of your connections. No matter how many people you know, if the quality of the relationships isn’t strong enough that they will work on your behalf, it doesn’t matter how big your contact list is.
- Reciprocity. The quality of your network is often linked to the reciprocal nature of your connections. A primary purpose of making connections is to learn about others and figure out the resources and support you might have to offer each other. Some might want the satisfaction of watching young talent grow or the support to sell an idea. Others might need your resources, your advice, your effort or your access to someone else. You can be a role model, a sounding board, an advocate or a coach.
- Dynamic. Your relationships will change over time. Your career priorities and development needs will change. You will have to add to your network or invest differently in some relationships over the course of your career.
Professional Relationships Are Not Friendships
You can choose which relationships you invest in and which ones you don’t, but understand that for the sake of your goals, you will sometimes have to invest in relationships you don’t particularly enjoy or that you initially find uncomfortable. Trusting professional relationships might evolve into friendships, but friendship is not a requirement. Rather, professional relationships are about connecting with someone to accomplish mutually important outcomes.
Avoid “Connection Compromisers”
Your appearance and presence are an advertisement for why others should connect with you. Like in any branding campaign, your “packaging” often leads people to quickly decide whether or not they’re interested in you. While I fully embrace the idea of being comfortable with who you are, it’s important not to confuse a certain style, dress or appearance with the essence of who you are.
Not long ago, a colleague of mine attended a one-man show about R. Buckminster Fuller, a rather eccentric 20th-century genius most famous for the geodesic dome. He was years ahead of his time in his advocacy for green living. In the show, Fuller explained that in his earlier years, he was committed to wearing comfortable clothes wherever he went—even at events that typically called for a suit and a tie. As you would expect, he got a lot of notice for his failure to conform to the social norms of the time. What he didn’t get was funding for his novel ideas. Finally, Fuller said, “I decided to dress like a banker so that people could see me and my inventions and not my eccentricities.”
I understand that dress, style of interaction and language are controversial for many of us who are from different cultures. They become dividing lines between how much we conform to our work culture and how much we maintain our unique heritage and personal culture. Those are personal decisions. However, I encourage you to consider the outcomes you want and whether your decisions contribute to those outcomes.
Relational Confidence Draws Others to You
Relationship building is a learned skill like any other skill. The more you practice, the better you become. You expand the range of personalities and perspectives that you can interact with gracefully. Your connections don’t have to be limited to people like you. Rather, you build your confidence that you have something to offer in any relationship.
Confidence in relating to others sends a strong message. I talked to many accomplished friends and colleagues about their own career journeys. Almost all of them could recount turning points in their careers that launched them on the trajectory to their current levels of success.
Through a series of experiences—some positive, some more challenging—all of these individuals embraced who they were as people and what they had to offer. They realized they didn’t have to be cookie-cutter versions of the people around them. They could connect to others from their unique heritage and perspective, but they didn’t pigeonhole themselves—or let others pigeonhole them—based on their background. They were free to represent and expand the full scope of their talents and perspectives. When they were comfortable with themselves and confident in their ability to relate to others, they were able to create more options for themselves. They leveraged their relationships to expand their impact.
Such freedom and confidence in your relational skills don’t come easily, but the effort to learn to interact productively and build meaningful relationships across the broad spectrum of individuals is worth the payoff.
Originally published on the SHRM Executive Network.