In startups and big business alike, I've found one constant: Your success is closely tied to your ability to build and maintain relationships. Often, it's more important than hard work or how many hours you give.
Not all relationships are the same, and your ability to distinguish between positive and negative--or casual versus committed--can make or break your future. I find that the most successful entrepreneurs have mastered the art and skill of building and managing relationships.
For example, we all know people who really believe that everyone in the world is their supporter, when in fact many are actively working against them. The reasons may be emotional or fact based, but the key is understanding and dealing with relationship realities.
In my role as a mentor to business professionals and entrepreneurs over the years, I have found that it's important to take a hard look at the relationships around you on a regular basis. If you have very few, or the wrong relationships, or your assessment abilities need tuning, your impact and your career may be limited.
Relax. All is not lost. You can learn from these priorities:
1. Everyone benefits from active mentoring.
The most productive business relationships involve mentoring, or active sharing of knowledge and experience, with the intent to improve communication, cooperation, and impact. This is a powerful and positive relationship that benefits both careers, as well as the business.
It works at all levels inside an organization, as well as outside the company. Most successful entrepreneurs and business executives admit to having mentor relationships, including Bill Gates with Warren Buffett, and Mark Zuckerberg with Steve Jobs. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and can benefit from an external perspective.
2. Provide and seek coach and advocate relationships.
The best coaches are people who care about you as a person, without any ulterior motives, and intend to inspire you to be the best that you can be. With their advocacy and guidance, your morale, skills, and thus productivity will go up, benefiting both the company and your career.
A good coach is not a critic. Beware of relationships with people who constantly put you down, highlight your flaws, or discuss your shortcomings with other team members.
3. Establish relationships with people in the know.
Some peers are always researching the big picture and latest details, and can keep you in the loop on what's happening in the organization and why. I'm not talking about gossip or negative information--just positive insights that will help you spend your time to the best advantage in your career.
These people are easy to recognize if you keep your eyes and ears open. They typically share insights early that prove to be productive, and have good relationships themselves with executives and other leaders.
4. Actively court relationships with people you aspire to be.
If your friends are all people in lesser experience, it's unlikely that you can learn new things from them. Supplement the scope of your relationships with trailblazers you respect.
You'll feel closer to people you professionally admire, which will make you more inspired by their results and motivated to follow in their footsteps. Keep your ego in check.
5. Expand work relationships into personal friendships.
Personal friendships between peers is always good for business, even between managers and team members. Personal friendships will improve communications and trust, and will definitely improve your personal satisfaction and life balance, between work and play.
6. Make it a point to get to know other teams and customers.
Just knowing more people both inside and outside your organization, if only as acquaintances, is still a good thing. It keeps you from becoming isolated in your views, improves trust all around, and generally leads to more cooperation and sharing. Even with all our technology, business is still people-to-people.
7. Above all else, don't create enemy relationships.
Things change rapidly in business, and enemies have a way of resurfacing in a position to damage your career or your project. Don't burn your bridges with anyone on the team, and use your initiative to engage people directly to improve communications, rather than cutting them off or instigating a personal battle.
Even the best technology and business model can't succeed without positive relationships all around on the team. As an angel investor, I learned this the hard way, and now I'm a believer that smart investors invest in people with the right relationships, not just ideas and skills.
Work to make your ability to manage relationships your sustainable competitive advantage.