Everyone agrees that relationships are important for career and business success. But who has the time to build relationships these days? It is useful to remember all the reasons why relationships are critical for success at work. Here are the key steps for building successful business relationships.
The Value of Business Relationships
People are more likely to help their friends than strangers. Managers who think along highly rational lines often overlook this simple truth. They think it should be possible to influence anyone with straightforward facts and logic. They feel that any honest person who wants to do the right thing should be only too willing to listen to reason. The idea of cultivating people strikes these managers as unethical or beneath them. No manager will admit to making decisions on personal or subjective grounds.
The truth is, however, no matter how objective managers may be, when it comes to choosing a supplier or business partner, most people prefer someone they know, all things being equal. Career advancement at higher levels is a lot like getting elected. Managers who get promoted have an extensive support network. When senior executives make promotion decisions, they consult their colleagues. If there are two equally qualified candidates, the one who people feel they can best work with will have the edge most of the time. When managers strive to get unpopular proposals accepted, good relationships with key stakeholders reduces resistance to change. Influential people are also indispensable for introductions to other important stakeholders.
Relationship Building Skills
Often managers see themselves as having good skills for building relationships simply because they behave in a friendly way with everyone they meet. Spending time with people, discussing common interests and a few laughs can go a long way. But one of the key skills for building critical business relationships is thinking strategically about who is worth knowing. Time constraints dictate a selective approach. Strategic relationship building means identifying a small set of people who are in powerful positions and whose help could advance your career and business interests. A certain amount of guessing is involved but any current list of strategic targets should be revised regularly. Some influential people could be unresponsive to your advances; also, your needs or priorities will change over time.
Managers who are short of time or not very socially inclined are not sufficiently proactive in building relationships with important stakeholders. They just can't see themselves approaching someone cold and striking up a conversation. Such managers have a very limited understanding of how to sell themselves. Flattering people or buttering them up is something they could never bring themselves to do. What they don't realize is that there is a very simple formula for building business relationships: showing interest in people. This means asking questions about what they are doing, how it's going, what's keeping them awake at night, how they got to where they are, how they see the future, what they would advise about x, y and z, how they handled a difficult challenge, what works for them in tricky situations and so on. People find it flattering to be asked questions about themselves even if the person asking them does not explicitly say anything flattering.
It helps to view important stakeholders as customers. Consultants have no problem asking questions designed to help them learn more about their customers. Managers need to do the same thing. It is not a matter of throwing parties or entertaining people. Buying support in this way is not as genuine as showing real interest in what is important to people.
It's also vital to stay in touch regularly, to seize every opportunity, even for five minutes to ask what people are working on now and how their pet projects are going. As you learn more about them, you could offer some gentle suggestions along the lines of: "Have you thought of trying x?" Or, "Would y work in this situation?" Just letting people talk through their issues in an understanding way can help them develop their own solutions, so it is possible to be very helpful without actually doing anything for people. This is not overly time-consuming, provided it is done selectively with strategically important stakeholders. When the time comes for managers to ask for help on one of their critical proposals, they will certainly get a more receptive audience with their strategic relationships than they would if they waited to approach key people until their help was needed.
One final, but core reason why so many managers fail to invest enough time in relationship building is that they are too busy "doing." They haven't learned the lesson that business gets done through people. These managers are not really managing at all; they are in a rush to do things and will never really succeed because they are too busy to think about the real keys to success.