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Using Your Network in Leadership Positions to Build Relationships

By Dan Gerdes, Ph.D. on November 21, 2014 hst Print

Relationship-building is a necessary leadership skill – professionals think of this as networking. Doing it well and using it effectively are oftentimes the difference between good and great accomplishments.

In his seven-point creed “Making the Most of One’s Self,” legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden identifies one of the seven ingredients as “make friendship a fine art.” Friendship could be defined as a state of relationship between two people in which cordiality and good will exist. This sounds like networking without all the politics. You don’t need political agendas to be cordial and strive for good will.

Using your network is really about the professional ability to build relationships with individuals who share similar values, interests and goals. How you use your network flows out of how you value those individuals with whom you’ve connected or with whom you desire to connect. If it’s just about building up politically advantageous relationships and coalitions geared toward individual advancement, then “hidden agendas,” mistrust and broken promises will eventually become an individual’s demise. In addition, the associated political agendas and power struggles end up tearing down far more than what is built up.

Using networking in leadership positions involves at least four basic relational fundamentals. These aren’t the “be-all-end-all” to using your network well, but could be considered as elements of a basic core that carry the seeds of effectiveness. These “seeds” of networking, like seeds in the core of an apple, may take time to grow and mature before they produce fruit. 

The quality of the fruit, however, begins with the quality of soil in which the networking relationship is growing. Influence in winning the favor and reciprocity of others is not the reward of cunning, condescending egotism. Instead, using a network built on the common basis of friendship increases the probability of being cordial while celebrating the common good at the same time. Professional politics will be present, but politics won’t be the reason the relationship is enjoyable.

Treat others the way you would like to be treated – and you do it first. While you are meeting and greeting people at the next professional conference or meeting, be willing to build others up and find positive topics to discuss rather than criticize, complain or condemn what’s not going well for you or the profession. Who wants to associate with someone who is pessimistic, negative and complaining? Find something positive in common with those you meet and build connection and rapport around it – and be the positive catalyst first.

Be a multiplier of resources and a builder of good will. Be the sort of professional who looks for ways to be a “value-added” member of the network. How can you add value to a professional relationship or activity? Maybe it’s your managerial skills, or your ability to think “outside the box” or even your ability to connect the right group of people around the table. It could be that being a great listener is value-added, sometimes even more so than giving advice or solving problems. As you add value to the network, your individual influence multiplies. Network relationships built on common rules of professional decency make your effectiveness and influence as a leader greater because your activities are implicitly supported by your professional circle of friends who know you and understand your character. They have personally experienced the value you add as a leader, and can support you sincerely.

Flip immature ambition with mature ambition. Immature ambition is knowing what you want and how (or from whom) to get it, while mature ambition is knowing what you have and how to give it away. Some of the finest – and most successful – leaders are those who are far more intentional about giving than taking, of serving rather than being served.

Perhaps you have had experiences in your network where someone you admire and respect gave you more time, assistance or attention than you were expecting. As we lift up others, it reinforces the more noble activities of serving within our leading, activities beyond simply the boxes we check off daily on the to-do list. Know what you have been given and how to give it away – and watch these “seeds of good will” grow into fruits that multiply into all kinds of successes. In your leadership position, think of it like this – you get to help people, rather than have to help them.

ALWAYS remember to say “Thanks.” Sometimes, in the hustle to get things done on time or ahead of our competition, we forget common courtesy. Hans Selye, the noted stress scientist, observed that the healthiest emotion is gratitude. Offering gratitude can be as simple as saying “thank you” or a short text or note, yet it carries tremendous relationship-building value. It helps fortify any relationship against taking things for granted between partners, especially partnerships with the mutual responsibility of helping young people. Always remember to recognize those in your network who help you get things done, and tell them “thanks.” It will be good for them to receive your thanks, and according to Dr. Selye, it will help you feel good, too.

A network can be powerful in its makeup of individuals and the work it does, but it doesn’t have to be egotistical and haughty. There are individuals who demand reciprocity, and there are those who command reciprocity within the network. Demanding is about title and status and wielding power; commanding is about character and respect. Title and status do carry a measure of authority, but having command is about the leader’s authentic respect and uncommon decency of character as experienced by others in the network. Winsome, commanding influence is better than demanding, self-centered egotism in the long run. To paraphrase Coach Wooden, “Make networking a fine art,” and always save room for cordiality and good will in your professional connections with others.