“We control fifty percent of a relationship. We influence one hundred percent of it”- Christopher Marlowe
Several years ago I was asked to assess the IT organization of a midsize company that was doing well in the marketplace but it seems that no one was happy with the IT organization. As I began to speak with various executives and other senior leaders an underlying theme began to emerge. It began in a subtle way but as I asked more questions and it became increasingly clear that I really wanted to hear the truth, it became evident that the problem was the IT director. He was consistently described as a good “technical guy” but it quickly became clear that his relationships with his peers throughout the organization were poor to non-existent. The resulting lack of any form of ongoing dialog or collaboration had isolated the IT organization who were now seen as distant and unresponsive.
In the various mentoring and coaching engagements I am involved with the issue of developing and maintaining effective executive working relationships almost always comes up. In the course of my career I have found that the higher one climbs in an organization the more important relationships become. In fact, at the executive committee or board level relationships trump almost everything else. Sure you still need to be competent in your field and your organization needs to deliver, but if you can’t get along with and relate to your peers, you won’t last long.
Here are five things I have learned throughout my career that I regularly share with my coaching and mentoring clients. I have found these to be essential in building and maintaining effective working relationships with my fellow executives.
1. Embrace the “Fido Principle." To anyone who has ever owned a dog this one will be obvious. There is a reason that dogs are referred to as “man’s best friend” and that most humans develop such deep emotional attachments to their dogs. First, dogs are loyal. People value loyalty as do organizations. Loyalty in the corporate setting manifests itself as genuine commitment to the success of your peers and the organization as a whole. You can’t be loyal and play political or power games. Avoiding these will truly set you apart! Dogs are also caring. My youngest son, Paul, has a seven month old German shepherd that absolutely adores him. In addition to being loyal she shows that she cares about him by her dog-like interest in everything he does. John C. Maxwell says, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Do you care about your colleagues? Finally dogs are enthusiastic. Now, I am not suggesting that you jump on your colleagues and lick them in the face when you meet them (a sure way to develop a relationship with the folks in HR, or worse!), but dogs exhibit an infectious enthusiasm about just about everything. Enthusiasm is contagious. Don’t fake it, people can sense that quickly, but be enthusiastic and positive about the things that interest and excite you. This manifests itself as a positive attitude. The IT director in my opening example was negative and cynical. No one wants a relationship with a pessimistic cynic.
2. Be trustworthy. Trust is earned. You become a trustworthy person (a person worthy of other people’s trust) by doing what you say you are going to do, by admitting mistakes and by being willing to be held accountable for your commitments and actions. I have never met anyone who does not highly value trust. Being trustworthy also means that you keep confidential information confidential. George MacDonald said, “To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.”
3. Develop self-awareness. Have you ever met someone who seemed totally oblivious to the effect of their words and actions on others or who seemed to be the only person in the organization who didn’t know that they were failing miserably? I certainly have. I recall one man who was rude, abrupt and insulting to just about everyone. He seemed to relish his “tough guy” image. When confronted about his behavior by a new boss his response was, “That’s just who I am.” The new boss gave him the opportunity to be himself somewhere else! Self-awareness is learning to see yourself as others see you and understanding how your actions and words may impact others. I highly recommend the various publications on Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman who has done some of the best work available on this subject.
4. Understand your colleagues. How well do you understand the folks you work with? How do they prefer to communicate? What are the “hot button” issues facing them? What are their critical goals, criteria for success and key milestones their business must meet in order to succeed? CIOs must know these types of things about each of their executive colleagues. I have a friend who keeps a spreadsheet that lists the name of each colleague followed by each of the items listed above. He carries a copy in his notebook as a constant reminder.
5. Always remember to say “thank you.” Never underestimate the value of a well-placed thank you. For years I have kept a box of simple note cards with my name engraved on them. I use these to write personal thank you notes to colleagues and employees. A hand written thank you note has more impact than you can imagine. Try it if you don’t believe me.
Finally, none of this matters if your organization doesn’t deliver. The combination of great organizational performance and strong peer relationships is a winning combination that will take you far as a leader.