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Rebecca Shambaugh

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Building Strategic Relationships

Posted: 09/07/11 11:22 AM ET

A client of mine recently contacted me after she interviewed for another job in her company and she was not selected. Mary assured me she had the experience and drive the Fortune 500 company was looking for. "I assumed my friends in her organization would put in a good word for me," she added.

This scenario about Mary is depictive of how many of us can get caught on a "sticky floor" -- those beliefs, assumptions or behaviors that can be self-limiting in terms of achieving goals in our professional and personal life. There are seven sticky floors based on my company's research and working with hundreds of women leaders, and Mary's frustration reminded me of one of the more challenging Sticky Floors, Building a Strategic Network. While it's true that friends can be a good resource, we also need to develop relationships with key decision-makers to help us accomplish important goals or get to the top or our organizations.

Women sometimes resist the idea that "it's who you know," clinging instead to the belief that promotions and success are a result of accomplishments -- and the hours they log. Next time you find yourself driving into work at dawn, think about the individuals in your company climbing up the ladder. They may also work long hours, but their promotions may be based -- in part -- on networks and connections.

Sound familiar? If so, here are five action steps for building your own successful strategic relationships:

1. Have a Goal

Strategic relationships are necessary only if you A) have a goal, and B) want to achieve it. You need to know what you want and who you need to know to help you reach these goals. Begin by writing down three career or business results you are looking for in the next year before even thinking about who would be in your network. Without important goals it's difficult to be intentional about seeking out the right people to have in your network.

2. Build a Diverse and Meaningful Network

The data shows that leaders who consistently rank at the top 20% of their companies in both performance and well-being have a diverse but select network of relationships. These people come from several different spheres both inside and outside their organizations. When building out your network think of people that can offer different information or expertise, people who are influential or can provide political support across the rank and file, people who will give you timely and candid developmental feedback, and senior executives who can provide the bigger picture which helps us to show up more strategic.

3. Fine Tune Your Social Radar -- Do Your Homework

Successful strategic relationships depend on research. You don't know the people you don't know -- which seems obvious until you go to lunch with the team leader down the hall. In this case, it would be wise to learn more about the person's interests and motivations and be familiar with the project, which is easy to do with a little online research. Be knowledgeable about the subject and prepared to ask intelligent questions.

4. Nurture Your Network

To ensure you can call on the right people when you need them, nurture them along the way. Stay in touch by sending interesting articles, notes and emails. Remember holiday greetings, thank you notes or postcards. Learn about their challenges, and consider contributing to their solutions. This may create reciprocal support down the road.

5. Think and Link -- Diverse Connections Will Open Doors

While attending an event at your child's school, initiate a conversation about business with another parent. They may have a connection for you to follow-up on -- if not now, then later. Try this at the health club, the doctor's office, or the dog park. This kind of cross-pollinating is what some people refer to as "think and link." Cast a wide net -- however, know that building strategic relationships does not happen overnight.

What happened to Mary? First, she did the right thing by trying to learn the lesson in her disappointment. Next, she shifted her attitude. She became more conscious of making her relationships more strategic, and she learned to make every interaction count. Mary's long time friends benefited, too, as she offered them valuable insights on creating opportunities in their own careers.

She learned that great accomplishments and successes are not done alone but call for the advice and support of others.

Rebecca Shambaugh, President and CEO of SHAMBAUGH and Founder of Women in Leadership and Learning, author of It's Not a Glass Ceiling, It's a Sticky Floor