01/16/2014 03:27 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2014

Looking to Get Promoted in 2014? Leverage Your Relationships to Elevate & Amplify Your Brand!

Time and again I've seen that when two equally matched candidates compete for professional advancement, the one with the greater skill in building strategic relationships will edge out the other.

A client recently requested that I help him evaluate two executives competing to fill the shoes of an Executive Vice President about to retire. As part of my due diligence, I shadowed each of the two on multiple occasions.

On paper, Emily and Edward are equally matched. Their prior experience and educational attainment are both high-caliber. Each appears well prepared for the EVP position. If they were two football teams playing a championship game, the score would be tied in the double overtime!

But as I watched them, I began to appreciate how different their relationships styles are. Emily displays a very intentionally developed finesse at what some might perceive as office politics, but is really more about leverage. Edward, on the other hand, takes a classic heads-down, "keep doing what I'm doing" approach. He's as competent and capable as Emily, but the people on his team feel an iron hand where Emily's feel a gentle touch.

To the people around them, Emily is perceived as an enabler while Edward is perceived as an inhibitor. Emily's mantra is "how can we get it done?" She believes nothing is impossible. She builds bridges that help her move her agenda forward. Meanwhile Edward's mantra is "Not on my watch." He believes that if it wasn't invented here, it doesn't merit consideration. He burns bridges instead of building them. There's a certain intellectual laziness in Edward's default position that "no" is the best answer. It compares poorly to Emily's insistence on the high road to what's possible.

I've captured a handful of observations on Emily's intentional relationship development techniques, and how they contribute to her professional success:

  1. Do your homework. Emily makes the time to know what's going on with individuals in her relationship network, so she can engage on a personal level before introducing her agenda.
  2. Confirm assumptions. She finds casual, nonthreatening ways to draw out others and then gauges their response. Their verbal and nonverbal clues fine-tune her understanding of situations and relationships.
  3. Develop your power of observation. Emily keenly observes the people whose realms of responsibility, reporting lines, and activities are instrumental to her top priorities for the year. None of these people work for her. This isn't about supervision; it's about influence.
  4. Uncover relationship assets outside your company. Emily will read an article in a magazine, find the author, and bring him in to consult on an initiative. She remembers how a former employee from three jobs and ten years ago did something and calls to ask for her help. She's extremely talented at figuring out the core competencies of each relationship and uses that to speed up her time to impact.
  5. Give and get informal coaching and mentoring. Emily will spend an hour over lunch chatting with colleagues outside her team about what they're working on, how they're doing it, and what she might be able to do to help. She's just as likely to reach out to senior executives for input on what she's doing.

As I observed Emily, I found myself wondering -- how does she accomplish all this? Is there a personal set of attributes that enable her relationship skill? Again, I came up with five traits:

  1. She actively builds community. For example, when Emily travels, she sits with someone and uses the time to talk about more than work.
  2. She blends her work and family spheres. At the holidays Emily's business colleagues get a card with a picture of her family. Where Edward would say, "My family is none of anybody's business," Emily's happy to share her personal life with her business relationships.
  3. She stays involved with past networks. For example, Emily volunteers with her college alumni group. She finds ways to stay connected with classmates and instructors. I saw her bring in a supply chain professor from yeas ago to help solve a challenge.
  4. She maintains a polished professional style. Emily dresses and behaves with understated elegance befitting a senior executive. She uses language very intentionally. Her warmth makes you want to be part of anything she's leading.
  5. She takes care of herself. Emily is well read and well traveled. She makes time to work out at the corporate gym when she's in town. She knows sustained success requires physical, mental, and emotional health. You never see her at less than her best.

All of these traits come together to make an intangible set of assets that fuels Emily's success. They could be seen as part of the competing for stature that we call office politics, but with Emily that's not what is happening. She's authentic, and it gives her an edge.

As part of my due diligence I tried to find negatives about Emily, but frankly, what I heard sounded like the typical grousing that hides envy or fear that she's raising the bar on others' performance. The insight I took away from assessing Emily is that she is very effective -- and it's because of her strategic relationships skills.

Edward, I'm sorry, but you're facing a headwind when it comes to your professional advancement. The Emily's will keep passing you on the way up for as long as you remain blind to the importance of relationships, and the skills needed to acquire those assets.

Nour Takeaways
  1. Being competent and capable isn't enough to win the competition for advancement: you need strategic relationship assets.
  2. People who advance to the higher levels have intentionally mastered relationship development techniques, among them the five I've observed.
  3. Relationship-building skill arises from a combination of personal attributes that any of us can develop if we choose to.