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There are Never Enough Leaders 4: Why developmental relationships are the centre of it all.

Relationships lie at the heart of the employee experience in almost every way. Organisations are, and should be, deeply human environments. They should uphold and value the very deepest human needs of belonging, connection, growth and recognition. Gallup’s research has consistently shown that having a best friend at work means employees are 7 times more engaged than those who don’t.

A study published in HBR found that strong relationships positively impact collaboration, teamwork, information sharing and productivity. Relationships are not only important for engagement, they are foundational for growth and development. Research by Gartner shows that people who have a strong personal mentoring relationship are 5 times more likely to get promotions and salary increases, a finding that is supported by The Journal of Applied Psychology who found that those with long term mentoring relationships experienced higher salary growth and deeper career satisfaction than those without. 

The humanity of our workplaces are under some threat. The advent of remote working and the rapid acceleration of AI-assisted technology (neither of which are at all bad things in and of themselves - far from it in fact) we are in danger of accidentally losing the soul of our working environments and one of the foundation stones of meaningful and satisfying personal development. These changes simply mean we need to be more intentional about fostering a culture which is human, and puts relationships at the heart of the development journey. If you were to back me into a corner to fight for one thing in the means of scaling effective leaders, I would vote for a culture of meaningful relationship based apprenticeship every time. Ultimately it’s leaders who reproduce leaders and that happens through exposure, visibility and relationship. The good news is that we don’t need to choose. We can simply add this commitment to the other elements we have already discussed in this series. 

3-dimensional relationships

Let’s re-imagine the relationships that really help people grow as leaders. Most people tend to think in only one dimension when it comes to relationships that can power their growth - having a mentor or coach. Someone who is more experienced, seasoned and from whom they can learn directly from. This kind of relationship is vital. Potentially the single most important development investment you can make. But it’s not enough. We need balance. We need to think in 3 dimensions when we approach developmental relationships.

  • UPward relationships: These are people you look up to. People who know more than you about something - they don’t need to know more about everything than you, but at least something. It’s someone you look at in at least one dimension of life and think, ‘I want to be able to be / do that more like you.’ The simplest and most proven way to develop something in your own life is to be around someone who knows how to do that ‘something’. Watch firsthand how it’s done, and ask lots of questions about ‘why’ it works when they do it (and possibly not when you do!). Information is rarely enough by itself. Imitating those who have the wisdom of experience accelerates the learning process. 

  • INward relationships: These are peers. Partners. People who you feel are an equal with. Nurturing these relationships helps create a place of authentic and transparent learning as you can share more completely. These are relationships of support and accountability. We need to choose these people wisely. You become like the people you spend your time with. Never take pride in being the smartest person you spend time with. 

  • OUTward relationships: These are people you are giving out to. People you are developing and mentoring. So many people count themselves out of developing other people - often because they don’t think they’ve arrived (which we never do by the way - ironically it's an anti-growth mindset). Intentionally investing in others is no act of benevolence either. It’s actually good for us to do so. Often referred to as the ‘protege effect’ it is the well proven learning fact that we learn more as we develop others. Becoming someone who effectively develops others also makes you counter-intuitively invaluable to organisations as you go about building capacity and capability all the time. 

These kinds of relationships don’t just happen. They take intentionality, ownership and initiative. They will rarely fall into place all by themselves and require each individual to take radical ownership of building their own investment plan to help make them happen. 

Building 3D relationships within the culture of our organisations

At an organisational level, we need to foster an environment where these sorts of relationships are encouraged, thrive and grow. There isn’t really a magic formula for building meaningful developmental relationships at work. It just takes intention, time and effort. It requires we value its importance and make a consistent and concerted effort to foster these kinds of developmental relationships. This said, there are a few things we can think about to help us get there. 

  • Relational Stories & Structures. Whilst I ultimately believe in responsibility taking cultures where every individual takes personal ownership of building these kinds of relationships, I also live in the real world. We need to cultivate this kind of culture intentionally until it becomes normal. We can do that by telling stories and building simple, repeatable structures. Regularly telling stories (in many different ways) of the impact, life change and joy of fostering these developmental relationships becomes the motivating force to encourage everyone to lean in. We first need to motivate and envision people to want these kinds of transforming relationships and we do that by sharing inspiring, yet deeply normal, stories. Alongside this we signpost people towards the structures that have been set up to nurture these kinds of relationships to make an easy way into experiencing them. Simple structures include obvious things like mentoring schemes and peer coaching opportunities, alongside career coaching programs and embedding relational coaching and development into our leadership programs and systems at every level. 

  • Leadership Culture. I believe we should simply define it as normal that leaders at every level invest in these kinds of developmental relationships. It should just be what it means to be a leader. We then train and develop all of our leaders that this is what we expect. In order to operate effectively as leaders, we focus on training everyone to offer a balance of ‘Support’ (a focus on relationships) and ‘challenge’ (a focus on responsibilities) to other people. Both are critical. Support focus means all of our leaders are extending relational invitation, encouragement, time, modelling, coaching and mentoring (both formal and informal) to everyone they come into contact with on that day. Challenge focus means our leaders are learning to consistently extend critical feedback, pushing people out of their comfort zone, setting high expectations and bringing strong accountability to everyone. It’s the combination of both of these behaviors that all of our leaders are trained and developed in that drives a deeply relational expression of development. These behaviours and the development culture that is established is expressed below based on the similar models found in GiANT’s Support / Challenge Matrix and Scott’s ‘Radical Candour’ Matrix. 

  • Succession Planning. ‘Succession planning’ is really just fancy HR speak for making sure there is always at least one person who you are training to do your job. Every level, every role. Imagine if we actually did this? Everyone in the business should have a succession mindset as it leads us towards identifying the person (or people) we are actively investing in every day to do what we do. We shouldn’t need a formal ‘succession plan’ in place in order for us to do this (I think it’s just what good leaders do), but it might be the framework or ‘organisational discipline’ that helps us towards right leadership behaviour. In good old fashioned terms it's called apprenticeship. It’s a simple invitation and commitment to a process of helping someone else learn enough from you that they can perform at your level. It’s fighting for their best, helping give them confidence, skills and belief. Inviting them to watch what you do - close enough to really see - and then getting close enough to them that you can really see what they are doing. It takes time, but the organisational benefits are huge. Leaders need to understand the journey they take people through as they effectively apprentice them. The illustration below combines Burch’s ‘Competence Model’ and Blanchard’s ‘Situational Leadership Framework’ to give us a simple model of how we develop people to do what we do. 

Meaningful, developmental relationships are the important humanising factor of organisations. Without them people do not grow effectively, are less engaged and the capability of the organisation does not expand as rapidly. It takes time and relentless focus to develop an environment where this becomes normal. The results are well worth it. 


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