Leaders who prioritize relationships at work as a way to ignite their employees’ engagement get better performance than those who simply enable their employees "to do their jobs." Engagement is what motivates employees to go beyond merely "doing their job" to venture into innovation and creativity. Only those leaders with strong relationship-building skills motivate their employees to see beyond their desk to put themselves in the shoes of their customers, patients or referral sources to find new ways to serve them. In our fast-changing global marketplace, every organization needs employees at all levels who will innovate and approach work with creativity.

What are the important relationships for leaders? Relationship building is a foundational competency of great leaders. Great leaders know that there are four types of relationships that fuel a productive, innovative work environment:

1. The employee-manager relationship, at any level.
2. Multiple relationships among peers.
3. Relationships between two or more departments.
4. Multiple relationships between the employee and the community, including customers, vendors, client and candidate referral sources, civic and professional organizations, feeder schools, city governments, banks, investors, etc.

If you are to lead a team or department known for innovation and creativity, you need to foster excellence in all four types of relationships. For all leaders, positive relationships take conscious effort. Relationships are two-way: so are the benefits. The quality of your work relationships determines the quality of your work experiences and output—and, ultimately, your value to the organization.  Excellent relationship builders rise in organizations, while poor relationship builders tend to languish and are shunted to backwater assignments or out the door.

In “The 8 Practices of Exceptional Companies,” Jac Fitz-enz lists communication, partnering with stakeholders (across functions inside as well as outside the organization) and collaboration within functions as three of the eight “driving forces” that correlate with financial performance. Each of these three relationship building “forces” requires initiative, overcoming the tendency to compete, and relationship development. The relationships that develop enable faster learning and creative problem solving, and fuel potential service or product innovation. In other words, relationships enable the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts.

How do leaders build relationships? 
Leaders have a plan to develop relationships with each of their employees.

1. Leaders start building relationships with new hires before Day One. Relationships begin with communication, and leaders make sure that they return all emails and voicemails promptly. They listen during the interview process for interesting life experiences, accomplishments or hobbies so that they can incorporate them during introductions of the new hire. They ask their staff, “What would have made your first two weeks easier?” They order all badges, name plates, etc., and schedule the new employee’s review of technology and equipment so that all is ready on Day One. Last, they ask the staff to plan a fun social event within the new hire’s first two weeks.  New hires need great relationships with their new peers.

2. Leaders build relationships during Orientation. Plan to spend extra time with a new hire and to use checklists for yourself and the new hire to ensure that all topics are covered, introductions are made, and tours and training are conducted. Leaders prevent “buyer’s remorse” by staying in contact with new hires after orientation ends. Without a good relationship with you, even the most seasoned new hire will find it impossible to bond with the department or the organization—so they will leave.  

3. Demonstrate inclusion management for all employees. Once on-boarded, the new hire joins the department or team and becomes one of a group who must continue to have good relationships with you and each other in order to perform at the highest level every day. Inclusive leaders use relationships to build “human bridges” to maximum productivity. No matter what their tenure with the organization, work arrangement or other diversity dimension, every employee needs to feel valued and included in order to work up to their full potential. The key is for the leader to mention every employee every month by giving credit, affirming remarks, and referring to an employee’s successes in meetings and emails.

4. Leaders use asking questions and listening as their most powerful relationship tools. Leaders listen; “empty suits” pontificate. In addition to your employees’ weekly reports of project status, next week’s goals, and ideas for improved workflow, etc., you still need a 20-60 minute weekly or every other week meeting with each direct report. Your goal is to maximize performance and minimize turnover, so the meeting belongs to your employee. Ask three open-ended questions:

   -“How are you?” Just watch and listen.  You will learn how to tell the difference between an employee who has been up all night with a teething toddler, and someone with one foot out the door.

   -“How is the team?” Just watch and listen. Take notes but do not offer to solve any issues or comment in this meeting. Decide later whether to follow up.

   -“How can I help you to do a better job?” Take notes. Respond immediately to reasonable requests and find a way to respond positively to unusual requests. By you removing roadblocks, the employee will have no excuses for not reaching goals.

Leaders manage employees individually and that means building relationships with each person on their team. The time is past when managers can be “hands-off” and be successful. The relationships that result from communication, collaboration, and partnering will provide a non-reproducible competitive advantage to your individual employees, your department and the organization overall. And to you.

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