Part III: Relationships

Of the four domains in our change leadership framework, people seem most surprised that we prioritize Relationships. They frequently wonder why we call it “relationships” instead of “people” or “communications.” Sam has already unpacked some of the problems with naming “people” as a strategic competency, and I have already decried the “communications problem” trap.

Nevertheless, I want to be particularly clear about what we mean by Relationships and why it’s such an important domain. I have worked with leaders who are just so damned good at relationship cultivation that it feels like nothing else matters—and also with those who so undervalued relationships that it cratered their business, destroyed their culture, and brought them to the brink of personal and professional annihilation (sadly, considerably more of the latter).

First, what Relationships means: understanding your stakeholders and building organizational capacity to inspire, engage, motivate, and move them. Understanding stakeholders means knowing who affects and is affected by your work and how. That requires meaningful learning about the ways that your team and their teams operate not just in terms of output but in terms of culture and capacity. Building a fulsome understanding of how teams work takes ongoing investment of energy and attention, but it doesn’t require detailed knowledge of what every individual does so much as how work flows, people interact, and problems are identified and solved (or not).

Inspiring, engaging, motivating and moving means unpacking nodes of influence—which may be more centralized in small organizations or quite diffuse in larger ones—and finding ways to both listen carefully and regularly to them while also telling and retelling your vision story. (For a great analysis of how to influence your network, check out Damon Centola’s work.) People go wrong here when they speak first and listen second. You can’t craft your message if you don’t understand what drives the people with whom you’re talking. First, do your best to really care about people.

It also requires what Schein and Schein call “personization”: mutually building working relationships based on trying to see people as a whole, not just in the role that they may occupy at a particular moment. One critical job of a change leader is to build effective cooperation and team learning that will undergird collaboration. Rather than focusing on individual talent (cultivating individual contributors), effective relationships work directly attends to how people understand and interact with one another. In other words, effective change leaders don’t just build strong, “personized” relationships with their stakeholders, they facilitate the creation of strong “personized” relationships among their stakeholders. This is the only way to build a durable and adaptive coalition capable of growing and thriving together through the rigors of a change journey. Sociologist Nicholas Christakis found that the most successful shipwrecked crews “were able to satisfy their needs for food, shelter, and safety precisely because they first honored and attended to their needs for friendship, cooperation, and learning”.

In my last post about Process, I wrote that all change is ultimately behavioral. But it’s not just about individual behavior change, it’s about group behavior change. This is why relationships matter so much in any change journey.

Now, what the Relationships domain is not: spending exorbitant unfocused time with people or altering the organizational trajectory to meet the discrete demands of individuals. Building relationships doesn’t mean you have to see every baby picture or know every pet’s name. It does mean understanding what people really care about and clarifying and aligning the functions of the organization in ways that show attentiveness to peoples’ concerns and needs. It may not mean making people happy, but it does mean attending to what they need to be successful in their roles.

If you’re a leader, relationship work extends well beyond the boundaries of your organization. The purpose of cultivating understanding of others peoples’ needs and aligning organizational capacity accordingly is to establish the foundation for doing hard things together. That applies at every level. You must cultivate strong relationships within your executive teams that serve as the foundation for frank and productive conversations. You must build relationships with your Board, your clients, your vendors and suppliers, and likely also with your communities and the governments that tax and regulate your organizations. You must form relationships with competing business owners and leaders. And even with ardent detractors.

In short, your job as a leader is to bring people along on a journey. Imagine a mountaineer guide who doesn’t take the time to understand who has a broken leg, who has asthma, who is afraid of heights, or who has summited challenging objectives before. The very notion is absurd. Yet that is how many leaders proceed in their efforts to undertake change: with an absence of an understanding of the people that must come along with them. That’s what the Relationships domain is all about.

Here are the specific competencies that leaders who become highly effective at relationship work cultivate:

  • Ability to listen effectively with the purpose of understanding people and their needs and drives

  • Ability to unpack and understand a network of stakeholders and establish trust with individuals and groups

  • Ability to attract and align talent in service of a clear and coherent vision

  • Ability to build a coalition of support and collaboration around the vision for change

  • Ability to effectively activate and engage a diverse network in service of realizing a vision

Among Vision, Process, Relationships and Problem Solving, people tend to be most intuitively attracted to or repelled from Relationships. Take a moment to consider where you fall on that spectrum. If you haven’t dedicated yourself to building relationship competencies, consider that your leadership is, by its very definition, imperiled.