Be a Better Leader through Win-Win Partnerships

Photo by Fallon Michael on Unsplash

I used to fake it until I made it. That was a motto of mine for many years. Don’t let them see you sweat; then go figure it out and make it happen. I gained a lot of success in my career doing this. It also allowed me to take on big challenges that were beyond my current skill set. I was resourceful and wasn’t afraid of hard work. 

Looking back, however, I could have made things a lot easier on myself and probably had even bigger success if I spent more time building and leveraging relationships. Instead, I was too busy with my head down, doing the work, busting my butt, and thinking that was the best way forward. 

To level up your leadership, you must level up your relationships

Yes, hard work is an important attribute, but it gets leaned on too much. It is not strategic and can lead to burnout instead of success. 

According to How Women Rise by Sally Helgesen, “Most great careers are not built on talent and hard work, but on the mutual exchange of benefits, something men are often more comfortable with than women.”

Typically, women look for relationships at work because they want to be friends or need a venting partner. These are reasons women frequently build the necessary support structure at work, to make work more enjoyable. What’s missing is the reason men tend to build relationships- someone that can also help accomplish their goals

Win-Win Relationships

Building relationships is about growing your network thoughtfully, knowing which relationships to deepen, and leveraging relationships. Networking can be an effective way to get results. It’s different than making friends (although friendships can be part of it) because you’re being more strategic by:

  • Identifying who has key information, influence, or perspective that you need about the organization, project, or stakeholders.
  • Identifying who to build an authentic and trusting relationship with so the person will give you direct honest feedback (and you can do the same, if appropriate). 

To build these win-win relationships, you need to shift your mindset towards being a connector. 

Influence Starts with Trust, but It Doesn’t End There

As a leader, you must know how to build trust in relationships. To be trustworthy, you must learn to have courage. To get past feeling like an imposter, you must have a direct, honest, and difficult conversation about performance. It takes courage to say something that someone won’t like. 

As you build trust, you gain influence, which is the currency of business. Influence helps you in decision-making, gets key projects or accounts, and increases funding or resources in an organization. Trust alone is not enough to gain influence. You must also have visibility (seen and perceived by others).

To learn how to be seen as a change maker or someone that can be relied upon is not about just doing good work and creating trustworthy relationships. This work must also be seen by leadership, who are often too busy to look for people doing good work. It must be put in front of them, which means actively leveraging your relationships to help your good work and deeds be seen by the right people. 

If you just got a sleazy feeling this likely comes from the belief that good work will be noticed, should be noticed, without the extra effort or asking others to help. This is another difference (generally) between men and women. This glaring humility will not help you gain influence and could also be misconstrued as arrogance. Everyone is too busy, especially leadership, to notice everything happening in a company, especially who is making it happen. Should leadership notice? Maybe, but this is not reality. If you do good work and it helps the company, asking others to help you get it noticed is actually in service of the company. 

Mentors & Sponsors

Mentors help give you another perspective and act more as a guide and advice giver. It is a valuable perspective, especially if the person is in your same organization because the insights are into the inner workings of an organization. But mentors also tend to be older. Sometimes how they did something or got to their level is not as relevant as it used to be. Companies and industries evolve. Keep this in mind; a mentor’s perspective is not “the” answer, but a valuable source of insight. Mentors not in your organization can provide a very valuable outside perspective and can connect you to a network beyond your organization.

Sponsors are in your organization and act as your advocate, put your name forward in assignments that help your visibility, and introduce you to key individuals. A sponsor is typically also a mentor but not all mentors are sponsors. 

Mentors and sponsors are not easy to find unless your company has a culture of promoting these types of relationships. You can increase your chances of fostering these relationships by actively getting to know leaders throughout the organization. Try asking for an informational interview, volunteering for initiatives run by other leaders, or talking to your manager regarding a recommendation.

Leveraging Relationships, aka Asking for Help!

If you’re like me, you might be interpreting ‘leveraging’ people as ‘using’ people. That is exactly the thinking that keeps women at lower levels of a company. Besides, leveraging is not using people, everyone has the free will to say yes, no, or make a counteroffer. Although you may feel that people don’t want to help, truth is, most people want to help.

Question: Are you willing to help someone if you know you can? Yes, of course, you are because you’re a decent and reasonable person. You’re a social being and you want to help if it’s feasible. Others feel the same way. 

The problem is, you’re either not actually asking for help, or when you do it’s too vague and broad. If you’re not clear, the person you’re asking doesn’t really know how to help, so they don’t. It is your job to state your needs clearly. 

Bad Ask: “I’m starting to look around (for a job), if you know of anyone that may be interested in my expertise, let me know.”

This is super vague. Your friend may not even understand what you do for work except maybe the general field or industry. Instead, do your homework and only ask when you’re clear on how the person can help you. 

Clear Ask: “Kate, I see you are connected to Larry Smith at XYZ Company on LinkedIn. I’m interested in learning more about his role and how he got to where he is today. Would you be willing to make an introduction?”

Clear Ask (and how to leverage others’ expertise): “Laura, you’re leading the X Project that supports the company’s goal to be more efficient. I wanted to know more about the technology behind it. Do you know someone that can give me a high-level overview?” 

Clear Ask (and a great way to create allies): “Rebecca, I noticed in the last meeting you made a suggestion that wasn’t acknowledged, but then it was repeated by Bob and it got traction. People seemed to really think it was a great idea. That’s happened to me too. I was wondering if the next time we’re in a meeting together and if either one of us makes a suggestion (that we think is good), the other person speaks up and confirms it was a good idea. That way our suggestions have a better chance of being heard. What do you think? Would you be willing to do that with me?”

It’s your job to do your homework so you can be clear when you make an ask, so you’ll actually get the help you seek. Don’t forget to let the person know you’re available to reciprocate. 

Fast Tracking Deeper Connections at Work

Not all relationships at work need to be deep. Some though, are very much worth the time and energy. 

Ask yourself: “Whom should I connect with to make this job a success?”

Before you can deepen your relationship, it helps to know the building blocks to making friends are:

  1. Length of time – spend time with a person long enough and you’ll become friends.
  2. Familiarity – we like people the more we see them and often this is unconscious.
  3. Similarity – the more we have in common with a person the more we like them.

To intentionally deepen the connections at work, so you can create allies and gain influence, you need more than the building blocks. According to The Best Place to Work by Ron Friedman use the following techniques:

  • Actively listen twice as much as you speak. If you want great tips to improve your listening, go here.
  • Be curious about others and ask thoughtful questions.
  • Less office talk and more personal talk to find common ground.
  • Ditch the small talk and self-disclose (appropriately) – be real. Vulnerability builds trust and trust builds deeper relationships.
  • Ask for help; people want to feel needed.   

Now get out there and make a coffee date!

If you want a partner to help you identify win-win partnerships and how to deepen your connections, I’m here for you.