How do great leaders build strong relationships with key employees? Are they nicer than less successful leaders? Are they tougher? Do they maybe pay more money?

In my experience, it's something else. Excellent executives know that strong professional relationships are built on mutual understanding, mutual trust and mutual respect. Here are three steps they follow to build those feelings with key members of their staff. You can do the same.

1. Open up. Tell your employees something about yourself that would help them better understand you. Relate a story about your background and life story. Tell them a bit about your hopes, worries and idiosyncrasies.

Some executives  bristle at this suggestion. They believe leaders should be stoic and guarded. I believe that following this stereotype makes it harder for your people to know you and trust you.

Self disclosure signals to employees that you respect them enough to invest in the relationship. It sets you up for more in-depth conversations about the business. It also tells them that it's okay to reveal a bit of themselves to you and their colleagues. It helps to create an environment where people better understand what you want and, as a result, operate at a much higher level of effectiveness.

2. But stop talking about yourself long enough to show interest in them. Get in the habit of asking a question of an employee that would help you understand them better. Many executives share plane rides with subordinates and never use the opportunity to learn about the person. Instead, they make small talk.

Most employees are actually waiting for you to ask them a question about themselves. It gives them permission to explain to you their own hopes, fears and life story. If they have a special needs child or other particular challenges, it gives them a window to tell you. I have seen highly valued employees quit because of special circumstances that they never felt comfortable disclosing to the boss, because they assumed he or she didn't care.

This isn't just about being warm and fuzzy. Asking after employees creates opportunities for you to better match key jobs with the talents of your staff. It also encourages your employees to raise bad news sooner than they otherwise would so that you can address  problems before they do real damage to your company.

3. Ask for advice (and then don't forget to listen). Too often, business leaders just don't do this. They are accustomed to dominating conversations and often mistake silence for agreement.

Do you create an atmosphere where key lieutenants candidly disagree and express their views? Do you ask for advice or do you passively wait for it? Maybe asking for advice makes you  feel uncomfortable?

Superb leaders seek opinions, sometimes in group discussions and other times in one-on-one seesions. Getting candid views and advice helps them make better decisions.

Better yet, this practice is enormously motivating to your people. It signals that you respect their views. It encourages them to be more forthcoming and candid. It trains them to do the same thing with their own subordinates. It encourages employees to put themselves in your shoes and act more like owners!

Try these three simple steps. You will see a marked improvement in the quality of your professional relationships as well as the atmosphere and culture of your organization. You will understand your people better, they will understand and trust you more, and you will become less isolated. You will become a more effective leader. And you might just like coming to work more.