One Friday, I joined my regular video chat with my mentor, who has at least 20 more years of professional and life experience than I do. We’d been meeting for over two years, and while our conversations were primarily work related, we had gotten to know each other on a personal level too—we often talked about upcoming family trips or recently attended concerts (pre-pandemic). I was in the process of healing from a recent medical and emotional trauma, which I had shared with him weeks prior. This time, his video background was different; instead of his ornate dining room in the background I had become familiar with, it looked like he was in a large closet. I asked him about it.
He said, “oh, I’m in my garage—with my whole family working and studying at home, it’s hard to get some quiet to concentrate on work.”
I thought to myself, “is this what we’ve come to? Working in our garages?”
“Also, I wanted to share a personal trauma of my own with you,” he said. He revealed a difficult time that he had decades prior, in an effort to comfort me about mine. It worked. I was taken aback by his generosity, openness, and compassion.
This is an example of a High Quality Relationship (HQR), or what I call a High Quality Career Relationship (HQCR).
Another time, a colleague I worked alongside earlier in my career reached out for some advice about some difficulty with her current team. While we don’t talk often, we’ve come to lean on each other from time to time, and we’ve both been in the advice-giving seat. I had applicable experience navigating a similar situation, and so, by the end of our call, she felt better having had a place to vent and sort through her thoughts and feelings out loud. She left having settled on concrete steps to move forward.
HQCR’s can take many forms, perhaps with a manager, a colleague, a former client, another team at work, a mentor, or even a hiring manager or prospective employer. And, beside the obvious benefit to your career goals, they’ve also been shown to improve physical health, contributing to a healthier heart rate and blood pressure, and to help combat risks that come with isolation, loneliness, and stress. They are positive, mutually-beneficial kinds of professional-yet-human relationships that can also help with employee retention, loyalty, productivity, and even profitability.
Looking to cultivate HQCRs? They take time to cultivate, but with preparation, intention, and commitment, you can deepen the quality of your professional network, one relationship, one team, or one company at a time. Here’s how:
Research and Get Curious
The quality of a relationship can begin even before you connect with someone for the first time. Prepare. Learn their background from LinkedIn, their company website, or by asking a mutual contact to bring each other value and share that up front. Research helps you determine if this is the right person to connect with and if spending time together will be worth it. (If not, you saved everyone from a useless meeting!)
Focus on Contribution and Impact
Through your research, you should have uncovered ways you could potentially help the other person, team, or company. Bring something to the table early—even if you don’t end up using that idea, it shows you have their best interest in mind and you’re truly looking to partner. Shift focus off yourself and focus on the other person (known as “other-centeredness”) and the impact you can make together. Rather than focus on what you can get from a relationship, highlight how your complementary skill sets can create a better product for customers or improve team culture.
Invest in Relationships Up Front
If you have a scheduled meeting with a new client, have you gathered information about them to make it a productive meeting? If you are meeting with a prospective partner company, have you tried their product or service? If you’re meeting with a professional leader, have you bought their book (or at least read the Kindle preview), or attended one of their speaking events? Put in the work, and others will find value in spending time with you.
Practice Generosity and Gratitude
It can be pretty embarrassing when someone asks you for an introduction to a contact, and then doesn’t follow up. We need to do right by those who help us along our path, which means thanking those who help us, and being generous in helping others, even as we develop our own careers. Giving to our relationships deepens the quality, expands the impact, and raises the bar for our communities so that we can all achieve more.
The difference we can make is significant when we build career relationships with a broader view, and a commitment to higher quality connections. Professional relationships can be—and arguably should be—personal, and the more personal, open, and authentic they are, the more trust, connectedness, wellbeing, and impact is generated. Next time someone reaches out to you in a professional setting, slow down, try to get to know them, and get curious to uncover ways you can open the door, and keep it open.
Rebecca Otis Leder is a marketing manager at Salesforce, and author of Knock: How to Open Doors and Build Career Relationships That Matter, out March 30. The book introduces “The Knock Method,” an actionable plan to develop high-quality, mutually beneficial career relationships that don’t just lead to jobs, but strengthen our collective power to drive change.