One of the most important ways to be successful is actually to create an army of people who are rooting for you. It’s nice to have the support of the person you work for, or a board, but the most important support you can get is from the troops.
Anne Mulcahy, CEO Xerox
Part Six of our Learning to Lead series focuses on every type of relationship that you encounter in your career; you must Build Relationships. Your relationships with those you lead, your team, your followers. Your relationships with your bosses and supervisors. Your relationships with those who mentor you, support you, connect you, sponsor you, and encourage you. Your relationships with colleagues and your network. Relationship building is critical to leading successfully.
The benefit of establishing enduring relationships is mutual for you, as a leader, and your counterpart in the relationship. People can require personal relationships with their leaders before committing themselves to their job or service or following or promotion. In True North, the authors indicate that people “insist on access to their leaders, knowing that trust and commitment are built on the openness and depth of relationship with their leaders. In return, people will demonstrate great commitment to their work and loyalty to the company.” Libby Sartain, Senior Vice President of Yahoo, says, “I believe you serve those you lead by giving them the tools, knowledge, and mentorship they need to get their jobs done. Forming good relationships above you, on the same level with you, and below you is how people succeed in the workplace. This is accomplished by thinking about what others need, not what you need.”
Successful women leaders are great at relationship building. They work at it. Maintaining and building strong relationships is an integral part of what they do on a daily and weekly basis. They understand organizations run on relationships and that strong relationships build commitment. A woman’s skill at relationships is one of the intrinsic qualities that equip her well for leadership.
One of the types of relationships that women I interviewed highlighted were their mentor/sponsor relationships that helped them get to where they are and succeed once they did. Former ABA President Laurel Bellows recently highlighted the significance of mentor and sponsor relationships:
A mentor alone is not enough to catapult a talented woman lawyer up the career ladder. For real career advancement, women need sponsors as well as mentors. What’s the difference? A mentor gives advice, serves as a sounding board and makes suggestions, for example, on strengthening your work or searching for a job. A sponsor is an active campaigner (inside and outside an organization) on behalf of a particular woman. Even when a sponsor’s protégé isn’t present, a sponsor will tout her abilities…One Catalyst survey found that women who have mentors are less likely to be promoted than women with sponsors. Another Catalyst study found that, while mentoring is essential for leadership development, it is insufficient for advancing to top levels.
The significance of mentor and sponsor relationships nearly merits its own section and that is why much of this relationship building segment is focused on those. Every article, research paper, and book I read highlighted the value of these relationships:
- Without sponsorship, you don’t get opportunities. To take center stage, you have to have opportunities. Only sponsorship early on delivers that.
- Do you have mentors? Mentors draw on their experiences and wisdom to guide you with sage counsel. It’s good to have mentors, and the more the merrier. But mentors don’t change the trajectory of your career. A sponsor makes things happen. He or she works on your behalf, getting involved with your career.
- A mentor is someone you can go to for advice about a challenging project you have undertaken, how to get over a hurdle, or how to deal with specific issues. Mentors serve as sounding boards, let you know if you are on the right track, and help you think through a situation. Mentors do not give you the solution; they help you think about the range of solutions.
As you can see, one of the most critical aspects of developing your leadership potential and identifying the pathways for opportunity is to find and build relationships with women who can serve as mentors and sponsors. But don’t forget, for those of you who are succeeding and developing, you must in turn serve as a mentor and sponsor to those coming along behind you.
Another aspect of creating and building relationships for a successful leader is developing exceptional teams. Hire the best from the very beginning. Look for people with the ability to commit to a bigger cause and possess values congruent with yours, curiosity and critical thinking skills, common sense, people and relationship skills, risk taking skills, and respect, admiration, and tolerance for the entrepreneur.
So what do you need to do? Well, if you already have mentors and sponsors, thank them. If you are not finding your current team is helping you strategically, think about other people you could contact. But don’t just approach them and say “help me!” First, build a relationship with the people you want to approach. Then, approach them with a specific mentoring or sponsoring request. Also, don’t forget about all those other relationships that you have to develop and nurture. Your colleagues. Your team. Relationships are multi-faceted and integrate your personal and professional life. Your reputation and ability to lead is based both on what you do and who knows you (and what they think about you). So go get a piece of paper. Write down who you know and what your relationship is with them and where they fall on the scale of these relationships. Seek out relationships in areas where you do not have strengths. And don’t forget to build in time to nurture the ones you have. One of the leaders I read about calendared ninety minutes every week on her calendar to “make calls.” She made it a priority to reach out to those in her network. Great tip!