Why your connections are your secret weapon


Published on: February 2021

We agree – 2020 was all about silver linings. Finding them, hanging on to them. Because this ride isn’t over yet.

So you know you from the first post in our blog series that before you look try to support others, you need to put on your own oxygen mask first. That’s key.

So, what’s next? Making sure you surround yourself with a village to sustain that well-being will allow for maximum productivity and effectiveness. In other words – forge connections.

Vital Friends author Tom Rath digs into Gallup research that shows the absence of a best friend at work results in only 1 in 12 employees being engaged in their jobs. One. In. Twelve. While some might find humor in the idea of a “best friend at work,” it has real business impact. Gallup’s research links employee engagement to profit, sales, safety, and productivity. It turns out that this skeptically viewed “best friend” question has one of the strongest links to those hard and important measures that the board and investors care so much about.

Everyone needs connection – hardly a groundbreaking concept. Some need it more, some need it less, but research clearly tells us that everyone needs it in some form to be successful and to be happy. It is even more challenging to do this in a still-virtual environment, where it takes more deliberate action. Here are four ways we look at how leaders should be thinking about how their connections can help them excel:

  1. Maintain your sanity
  2. Get stuff done
  3. Expand your influence
  4. Find fulfillment
Connect to maintain your sanity—and others’ too

“Even though people spend more of their waking hours at work than anywhere else, people underestimate how work influences their overall wellbeing and daily experience.” – Tom Rath

The typical American works about 1,800 hours per year, and that number has likely increased during pandemic times, with blurred work-life boundaries. Worse yet, we’re more anxious and overwhelmed. A pulse check by the American Psychological Association found that nearly 8 in 10 adults say the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives, and nearly 1 in 5 adults say their mental health is worse than it was at this time last year. Perhaps not shocking – but are we as leaders helping to create and encourage the outlets to manage that stress?

Create a dedicated connection forum or platform

Of course, there is much you can do on your own to restore and maintain your sanity. We covered some of that in our first post. The task here is to involve others in maintaining or even growing your – and their – sanity and provide a platform to help your team do the same. In the midst of the pandemic, our founder and CEO Suzanne Bates instituted a “buddy system” at the company. The idea being that on any given day, someone might need a captive ear, a shoulder, or just a colleague to process with. It wasn’t about catching up on work things – it was more about checking in on each other’s well-being. While team members approached it in different ways – some met weekly, others just when they needed support – having a safe space and a means of asking “how are you, really?” has in many cases transcended just emotional connections, and has led to innovative ideas, brainstorming, and in some cases – new ways of working together. In fact, this blog series is a byproduct of a great buddy partnership.

Connect to get stuff done

As a leader, you need other people to accomplish your goals. You need to rally the troops, ensure alignment, and motivate them to execute. At Bates, we call this intentionality: being able to clarify direction for the team and keep actions aligned and on track. In other words, driving execution through others.

All of that is challenged in this virtual environment. In person, you may more easily get a sense of how projects are going, if there are roadblocks, or if the team is feeling overwhelmed. But when you’re not in the room or having those regular conversations, you may not pick up on the things that slow progress. To adjust, you must develop a more systematic approach to connecting about initiatives and goals.

For example, we are working with the top supply chain leader for a global industrial organization. This leader has been charged with spearheading a re-engineering initiative. This would be a difficult task even pre-COVID. Gone are the impromptu hallway conversations or water cooler chat she might have to ease into these sensitive discussions with her team. She has found that to drive this initiative forward, she must spend more time with people and consciously create interactions that otherwise would have occurred naturally. And it can’t be all about business, given that she is in a position of needing to ask people to give up budget, people, or both – often tough, personal, and emotional decisions.

Create a roadmap to make the right connections

We recommend you create what we call an Initiative and Influencers Matrix. Jot down a list of the top three things you need to get done – whether big initiatives or small projects – down the left-hand side of the grid. Along the top, capture the key stakeholders you need to get that work done. In each box, break down the stakeholder names into two buckets: stakeholders you’re regularly in touch with, and stakeholders who might have fallen off your radar. Identify and map the connections you might need to create or reignite to be your most effective and productive self and create the buy in you need to move further, faster.

Connect to expand your influence

The third aspect of connection deals with your work future – who do you need to stay connected and visible to so that you don’t derail your own business success? We all know the adage, it’s not what you know but who you know. Well, we think it is a both/and equation.

Consider this client we worked with. Dan ran a multibillion-dollar business at a Fortune 50 company. For better or worse, he was often quite literally the smartest person in the room – at least according to his senior leadership team colleagues. He tended to write off people who didn’t share the same level of perceived intellect and drive for success. More than once, this discounting of key stakeholders nearly cost him his career. In fact, in at least one case, his inability to take a peer-to-peer approach held him back from taking on a bigger role. Dan learned the hard way that professional growth is a team sport. We know from our research that humility (having an openness to others), inclusiveness (bringing others into the conversation), and interactivity (consistent and frequent interpersonal exchanges) are fundamental to leadership effectiveness and can be the difference between flatlining and expanding your sphere of influence – even if you’re one of the most senior people in the room.

Create a personal board of directors

Establish a formal or informal network of colleagues, friends, mentors, advisors to connect with regularly as a sounding board, and advisory group. Think about who could help you broaden your perspectives, get exposure to other parts of the business, provide advice and guidance. Think beyond the usual suspects. Who are the individuals who you are not close to who might influence your opportunity for impact – for better or worse? Who might your dissident stakeholders be? And bring them close. Who are some leaders or colleagues outside the company who could bring an unbiased perspective and fresh ideas? For very senior leaders with few peers within the organization, this approach can be game changing.

Connect to find fulfillment

Sometimes connection isn’t about the day-to-day work at all. Of course, you need connections to get work done. But connections in the workplace don’t have to solely focus on what helps you contribute to the bottom line, hit deadlines, move business forward. They may be about finding personal fulfillment and meaning at work – which often drive creativity and innovation. Gallup would tell us that engaged and motivated employees are more productive. And we don’t disagree with that.

We have a female executive in the technology space who loves her job. She really finds the work interesting, and intellectually challenging. And while she has decent relationships with her senior leadership team colleagues, she doesn’t have a lot in common with them. As working mother with young children – in a predominantly male field – she was missing relatable, empathetic connections that would help her maintain energy and balance when life and work was feeling out of whack.

Tap your leadership skills and role to inspire others and yourself

We talked about where she could take on a leadership role in one of the organization’s support communities. Most companies have some form of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) or Team Member Networks. ERGs are not just for mid-level or high potential employees – they are critical for senior leaders who can actively participate as executive advisors or sponsors. Visible representation for high-level executives gives credence to the importance of connection and balance. It helps set the tone for more junior team members in the organization while also allowing those senior leaders to benefit from new interactions and community of an expanded group of employees.

This client found a renewed sense of purpose by taking on a sponsor role with the Women’s ERG. She was able to encourage and support networking, leadership programs, and volunteer opportunities for women across all business units and levels of the company – and found herself lifted and inspired by the camaraderie.

Often as leaders we focus on the “what” that needs to get done – driving the business forward, hitting our strategic priorities, delivering for clients and shareholders. But we focus less on the “how” that will get us there. The critical relationships and connections that not only pave the way for efficient work but help lessen the singular responsibility for any one leader by sharing some of that mental and emotional burden with key partners. The hardest part is being intentional and carving out the time to focus on building those connections so you, in turn, can be an even more effective leader for your people.

So consider our advice – find ways to establish relationships at work that will help you stay sane during the tumultuous times, while also helping you push that rock up the hill with a bit more ease. Try out one or more of these ideas we shared and encourage your teams to do the same.

Balance is about finding your zen so you can focus on what needs to be done. Connection is about maintaining that zen so you can get work done. And our next blog post about effectiveness? It’s about channeling that zen – cutting out the noise and clutter – so you can deliver with excellence and productivity.

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