The Things Successful Leaders Do and Don't Do to Build Relationships

If you're sincere you won't have to worry about what you should be doing to cultivate successful friendships, at work and in life.

learn more about Alan Zimmerman

By Alan Zimmerman


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

There are many components of leadership success, but none of them is more important than the relationships you build, on and off the job. As John McGuirk says, "The ability to form friendships, to make people believe in you and trust you, is one of the few absolutely fundamental qualities of success."

I agree. If you're trying to lead a company, build a team, sell to a customer, or improve your home life, you'll have a lot more success if you know how to build relationships with people.

That doesn't mean you have to socialize with everyone. And it doesn't mean you have to become the best of friends with everyone.

Fortunately, good, healthy, positive, productive work relationships don't have to take all your time and energy. They're simply the result of cultivating the right spirit and demonstrating the right behaviors.

Andrew Tawney wrote about that spirit. He said, "When two people are united in friendship's spirit … it gives richness to life and promise to the future."

Absolutely! No one would argue that he is better off in life or business with negative, contentious relationships, and yet those kinds of relationships are all too prevalent.

So what gets in the way of cultivating the right relationship spirit? Here are five barriers to relationship success:

After working with hundreds of executives and entrepreneurs, I've discovered five barriers to building the relationships you need to achieve the success you want. See if any of these resonate with you.

First, you may be too self-sufficient.

Relationships are built when you and another person help each other. But if you've got the attitude of "I don't need anyone...I'm tough...I can handle it," you won't have as many people in your corner wanting to work with you or cheer you on.

Second, you may have the wrong priorities.

You may be focusing more on making money than building a strong relationship with your customer, for example, and that, in the end, will cost you money. It's like the newly married man that asked his wife, "Would you have married me if my father hadn't left me a fortune?" "Honey," the woman replied sweetly, "I'd have married you no matter who left you a fortune."

Related: How to Prioritize Your Priorities

Third, you may be too busy.

It takes time to develop good relationships with your teammates, and it takes time to create a spirit of friendship with your customers. It takes time to have a real conversation and listen intently. Most people don't take the time or at least say they don't have the time. One executive told me she had moved fourteen times in her career. In fact she said, "I move so often I don't bother to say 'hello' anymore to my coworkers."

Fourth, you may lack the necessary communication skills.

You may not know what to say. Or you say the wrong things. As one pundit said, there is no evidence that the tongue is connected to the brain. And you may not know how to phrase your questions. That's why I advocate the asking of brave questions that go beyond the superficial and start with the 5 W's and 1 H: who, what, when, where, why, and how.

Related: The 10 Communication Skills Every Entrepreneur Must Master

Fifth, you may not be real.

You can't go out and sell your team on a set of values but ignore those values when they become inconvenient. One CEO was constantly talking about quality, but when the company deliveries got into a time crunch, he'd tell his team, "It's good enough. Just send it out the way it is." That approach will kill off the spirit of friendship.

It's like the time I gave the keynote address at the meeting of a financial organization. I was surprised to hear them praise the quality of their investments, but at the same time I found out that many of the sales reps didn't even own the investments they were telling others to purchase. In fact I owned more of their products than many of them did. That's not real.

Fortunately, relationships are not a matter of chance. They are a matter of choice. They are the result of what you do. Here are three behaviors that build relationships.

First, make relationships a priority.

You tend to achieve your top priorities. So even though it may be hard to admit your need other people, you've got to make them a priority.

And priority is spelled T-I-M-E. You've got to invest some time … or spend some time … with the important people in your life and work. Your coworkers and your customers will never forget the time you dropped by, shared a cup of coffee, sent a note, or asked for their input.

Second, be a giver.

Be kind without expecting kindness. As the Roman philosopher Seneca noted, "There is no grace in a benefit that sticks to the fingers."

When you give to others, it kicks the reciprocity principle into gear. They naturally want to give more of their cooperation, loyalty, and business in return. As one motivational speaker pronounced, "You get everything in life you want if you just help enough other people get what they want."

Related: Master the Art of Relationships Because Business is Not a Solo Sport

Third, be appreciative.

Everyone has qualities that can be appreciated. An old Arabic saying states that a real friend is one who blows the chaff away and nourishes the seed which remains.

How true! Everyone has some chaff or some unlikable qualities. They're not hard to see. But when you are appreciative, you overlook the unlikable qualities -- if possible and if appropriate -- and recognize the good things you notice.

Perhaps no one said it better than TV star Donna Reed. As a youngster I used to watch her television show, a good, clean, upbeat family show. As an adult I remember her wisdom. Donna said, "When you handle yourself, use your head. When you handle others, use your heart."

Bottom line:

To be highly successful as a leader, you will always need a vast network of positive relationships. This is how you can keep on building your network.

Alan Zimmerman

Author and Speaker

Alan Zimmerman, Ph.D., is an author and speaker. He is founder and CEO of Zimmerman Communi-Care Network, Inc.

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