Phil Willburn – Networked Leadership

Why Relationships Fail Leaders

Most leaders are network blind: They can’t see how to create an effective network, maintain its quality, or leverage it appropriately. Sure, many of them understand the importance of a network, but they don’t really know how to put good networking skills into practice.

As my good friend Jay Allen says, “Leaders don’t know how to build, maintain, and leverage their networks appropriately.” For this reason, many leaders’ relationships end in failure.

Here are the three most common network mistakes I see with the leaders I work with.

Mistake 1: Networking haphazardly based on context, coincidence, or commonality.

Leaders, like most people, build relationships that are easy or don’t require too much energy to keep or maintain. This type of networking includes relationships built on context, coincidence, and commonality. While this may seem like a natural way of building relationships, these relationships do not always provide a significant benefit to a leader’s network. Networking through context means that you prioritize your relationships based on frequency of contact. This can be a downfall because the relationship can either stagnate as contact diminishes or the relationship could take up valuable space but have very little to do with your work. The downfall of networking through coincidence is that you build relationships that may not be connected to your long-term goals, which may distract or deter you from being efficient on the job. The downfall of networking through commonality is that you build redundant or like-minded relationships, which don’t provide innovative thought or expose you to new opportunities. All three of these methods will cause an insular and closed network that does not provide a leader with diverse and new information to get their jobs done effectively.

Instead, leaders should build intentional networks. They should create a relationship building strategy, which includes a map of future goals, identification of missing knowledge domains, a plan for targeting relationships in those domains, a plan for maximizing diversity, and strategies for deepening current relationships.

Mistake #2. Not checking in on the status of relationships within the network.

Most leaders assume they have strong trusted relationships with the people in their network, but they never actually check the status of their relationships to see if trust is still alive and flowing. Strong relationships are built on three principles: reciprocity, intimacy, and frequency. Most leaders I work with do not regularly check the status of their relationships with others.

Failing to check-in on your relationships can lead to two common scenarios:

Scenario 1. Leader trusts his followers, but the followers don’t trust the leader.

In this case, the followers are guarded about the information they share and may not tell the whole truth to the leader about how the organization, project, people, etc. are performing. This means that the leaders do not have a full picture of their organization because they trust the partial truths of their followers.

Scenario 2. Followers trust the leader, but the leader doesn’t trust his followers.

In this case, the leader doesn’t trust the advice and feedback of his followers. He won’t adapt his personal leadership style or how he’s leading the organization to the eventual failure of the individual and potentially the organization he’s leading.

In either case, non-reciprocity of the relationships will cause misalignment, miss-communication, and an eventual break in the relationships.

Instead, leaders should perform routine checks in the relationships. One way to do this is to imagine the next conversation you are going to have with that person and ask why: Why are we talking about his pay raise, why are we talking about her performance in the business unit, why am I going to discuss racket ball with this guy, etc. These imagined conversations, as well as the real ones, are the doorway to understanding the relationship’s status, but only if you are paying attention. I find that Susan Scott’s take on having a Fierce Conversation a good way to start figuring out the status of the relationships around you.

Mistake #3. Failure to accurately understand how the organization’s informal network is constructed around the leader.

Most leaders believe that they are more central to their organizational networks than they really are (in network science this is the study of socio-cognitive networks). They perceive the network as spokes with them in the middle as the hub. However, leaders are most often on the periphery of the network. They are not the information hub they think they are. The information flows around them, not through them. They take action and make decisions and judgments from the limited information they receive. Leaders who do not accurately perceive the network will always be acting on information that is out of date and often inaccurate. This also depends on the level a leader is at in their career, as I’ve discussed before.

Instead, leaders should take time to understand who within their organization is the actual hub or knowledge broker and reach out to these individuals to develop better insight into the organization. This can be done through an interview process that involves a number of innocuous questions like “who do you go to advice for” or “who influences your decision making.” This process can also be done through an organizational network analysis.

Avoiding these three mistakes will go a long way in helping leaders gain a little more insight into their networks and making their relationships work for them.

Discussion (2)

There are 2 responses to “Why Relationships Fail Leaders”.

  1. Chris responded:

    · Reply

    The idea of building intentional networks is very insightful. It would seem like most networking traditionally occurs through chance, where the successful relationship building instances are assisted by the 6 (I mean 3) degrees of separation phenomenon.

    What are some of the initial things to think about when making a networking strategy for yourself?

    • Hey Chris, thanks for commenting. Here are a few ways to be more intentional about your network.

      1. First, have a goal: where do you want to be in the next 5 years in your career or personal development
      2. Assess how your current relationships are supporting (or not) your goals
      3. Determine the knowledge or institutional areas that are missing
      4. Identify people who may fill the area that is between you and your goals (if you don’t know somebody, find out where these people hang out and go there).
      5. Focus on creating deep reciprocating relationships with the people who are in your targeted areas
      6. Be curious and open to where the relationships lead (I’ve had more than my fair share of surprises).

      Hope that helps.

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