by Morag Barrett

5 do’s and don’ts for creating career allies.

Mar 07, 2016
CareersIT LeadershipRelationship Building

Creating career allies – nurturing professional relationships – is critical for your success.

How many hours a week do you spend at work with your colleagues? 40? 50? 60? How many hours a week do you spend with family and friends? My guess is that, like many of the leaders I work with, you spend more time with your co-workers than you do at home.

It’s no wonder that the concept of a ‘work-wife’ (or husband) has entered the vernacular, work-wife apparently dates back to the 1930’s! The term describes a platonic relationship with a colleague, and could easily apply to what I describe as an ally relationship in my book Cultivate: the Power of Winning Relationships.

If relationships matter, they matter even more at work. Your success depends on the quality of your professional relationships. Those people without whom your success would be compromised; the professional connections that you reach out to when you have a question or are unsure of what action to take; winning relationships that empower you to achieve outstanding results together; the “I-couldn’t-get-my-job-done-without-you” relationships. It is also about those difficult and challenging relationships that drain your energy, that create roadblocks and impact your ability to deliver the goals and results expected of you, the “I-get-my-job-done-in-spite-of-you” relationships.

Having a work-spouse – or, as I prefer to call it, an Ally relationship at work – has been shown in numerous studies to make you a better leader, more engaging to customers, deliver stronger results and produce higher quality work. An article in Harvard Business Review reported that strong social bonds don’t just predict overall happiness, but also have a significant effect on a person’s long-term career achievement, occupational success, and, ultimately, income.

Improving the quality of our professional relationships at work is not rocket science, but it may as well be. We’re all so busy keeping our heads down and eyes on the prize that we can forget to look up and connect with those around us. Whether you have a work-spouse or are looking to cultivate career allies, these five Do’s – and, perhaps more importantly, Don’t’s – can help you cultivate winning relationships:

DO: Identify who you need to connect with. You don’t have enough time to develop Ally relationships with everyone. Take a moment to write down three critical goals you must achieve in the next few months. Next to each goal, write down the names of your coworkers who could help or hinder your ability to achieve those results. These are the critical relationships that require care and attention, and the people with whom you need to proactively invest time with to develop an Ally relationship. Remember: your success depends on this person (and may be at risk if you don’t)!

DON’T: Focus only on what you can get. If you only contact your critical stakeholder when you need something, you’ll very quickly find that your ‘work-spouse’ might be washing their hair and unavailable! An Ally relationship is about give and take. Be proactive in offering your expertise, and ensure that reciprocity is part of your relationship.

DO: Talk to strangers. OK, I don’t mean stranger-strangers, but I do mean the colleagues at work that you don’t know. It seems to me that the “Stranger Danger” talk we are given as children weighs far too heavily on us as adults. You go down to the cafeteria for your lunch, walk out with your tray of food, look around the room, and don’t recognize anyone… and so you go back to your office and eat alone. And yet, none of us are in Junior High. It’s OK to go and sit with the cool kids – in fact, you are one of the cool kids, because you all work and play for the same team! Sit down, introduce yourself, and find out how you can help each other to be more successful.

DON’T: Stick with the usual suspects. Many leaders put a lot of energy in cultivating relationships with those with the right title and seniority (the vertical relationships), but spend less care and attention on horizontal relationships across their business. If you’re focused only on the ‘right’ connections, your style will come across as inauthentic. I’ve worked with many leaders whose relationships have been skewed in one direction (usually up) and do not include representation from across the organization.

DO: Say thank you! When was the last time you received thanks for a job well done? Studies show that gratitude, when genuinely expressed, has a direct and positive impact on relationships. It’s not enough to wait for others to recognize your contributions and thank you, though. It starts with you. When was the last time you said “thank you” to someone on your team, or in another department? Saying “thank you” is one of the key conversational strategies within Cultivate that nurtures new relationships and improves existing ones.

DON’T: Focus on only one relationship. It’s easy to focus on your work-spouse or Ally at the exclusion of your other professional relationships. After all, they ‘get’ you; you have fun together, and they challenge and encourage you to be the best you can. However, by limiting your attention on one person, you may run the risk of the relationship being misinterpreted and having yourself and your ‘work-spouse’ become the focus of gossip and speculation. It’s far better to have more than one Ally and cultivate a ‘work-family.’

DO: Personalize the relationship. Nurturing Ally relationships isn’t easily done by email or even phone. Relationships by their nature are personal. Face time is the most effective way to strengthen your professional connections. Whether you go for lunch, walk around the office campus, or simply stop by a colleague’s desk to check in, the personal touch makes all the difference. It’s all too easy to let the hectic nature of Monday through Friday flash past and forget to make time to invest in your professional relationships. Put it in your calendar if necessary – you’ll be glad you did.

DON’T: Multi-task and forget to be present. The most common frustration I hear about relationship-building involves multitasking. We’re all guilty of it: checking email while we’re on the phone, not actively listening during a conversation, looking through our Facebook or LinkedIn feeds while we’re grabbing a coffee with a colleague. These all send the clear message “You are not important.” If you want to avoid any possibility of sending this message, switch off the computer screen, turn away from the distractions, or if necessary, signal the fact that you are in the middle of something and schedule time when you can focus. Email can wait, people can’t.

DO: Reflect and learn.Weekly reflection is a powerful tool. Use the weekend to contemplate the larger forces that are shaping your industry, your organization, your job and yes, your relationships. Without the distractions of Monday to Friday busy work, you should be able to see things in a new light. Use this insight to alter your approach to the coming week, and improve the efficiency and efficacy of your work.

DON’T: Cross the line. The key to a successful and professional Ally relationship is that it is platonic and professional. In Cultivate, I share four conversational strategies for clarifying ‘the rules of engagement,’ as I’ve found that most relationships flounder when expectations aren’t clearly articulated. If you ‘cross a line’ or feel that someone else has crossed a line with you, you need to have the courage to discuss it, and to get the relationship back on track before you run the risk of it derailing irreparably.

Bringing it all together

It’s not what you do that is the sole driver of your career success — it’s how you do it, and perhaps most importantly of all, who you do it with.

A work-spouse is a conditional relationship; it rarely continues when circumstances change, a move to a new office, when one person leaves the organization.

An Ally relationship, on the other hand, is unconditional. Through good times and bad, your Ally will have your back. These relationships will stand the test of time even if one of you moves to a new role or company.

Whether you are the CEO of a major organization, starting out in your career, a people manager or a technical leader, cultivating winning relationships is a game changer.

Remember: Business is personal and relationships do matter.