Building genuine relationships with those you lead is key for being a successful leader – a partner leader. One of the best ways to do this is to be with those you lead. Spend time with the people you serve. Rub shoulders with them. Live where they live. Understand what their duties are, their responsibilities, their challenges. See things from their vantage point, at eye level.
The Marine Corps calls this “eyeball” leadership, where officers take time to walk in lockstep with those they are training and experience exactly what they are experiencing. They get in the trenches with them, literally. The result is a cohesiveness, a closeness, a feeling of unity that couldn’t be acquired any other way.
“Walk slowly through the crowd,” advises John Maxwell. “Remember people’s names, smile at everyone, and be quick to offer help. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Partner leaders understand the importance of being accessible, approachable and accountable.
Not surprisingly, when I bring this up when I’m speaking to leaders, the first pushback I get is “I’m so busy, how do I find time to build relationships with my people?”
My answer has two parts: Accessibility and Proactivity.
Do you, as a leader, make yourself accessible to those you lead? Do you eat lunch in the company cafeteria or are you always on your own? Do you have an open door for people to come and talk to you or are you closed off? When you are with your people do you make it feel as though you are approachable, that you are open to conversation, that you have time to ask them questions and answer their questions?
Making yourself accessible is step one. But to build genuine relationships you also have to be proactive about it. Leaders are busy. You have a lot on your plate, there are deadlines to be met, plans to be made. Prioritizing is vital, and prioritizing people should land at the top of the list. So you have to find your moments and plan for them. Maybe you have an opportunity to eat lunch once a week with one of your key leaders, maybe you can get to the office five minutes early and use that time to sit down with somebody on an individual basis. Leaders who are proactive about building relationships will be more successful and influential …
The next pushback from the leaders goes something like this: “If I lead 500 or 1,000 people, how do I build genuine relationships with all of them?”
That’s a good question, and the short answer is: you can’t. Research by a British anthropologist and Oxford professor named Robin Dunbar showed that any one person has the capacity to build and maintain meaningful relationships with 150 others. It’s called the Dunbar Rule. Dunbar studied numerous social groups, from ancient hunter-gatherer tribes to modern companies of Marines, and found that plus or minus 150 is the magical number of close relationships we are naturally designed to manage. Attempting to maintain any more than that starts to break down social systems or effective hierarchy. No one person can single-handedly manage a large number of people and maintain a strong sense of trust, commitment and community.
If you’re the leader of a thousand-person company, you have to build a heirarchy of leadership. Who are the key leaders and influencers you need to develop genuine relationships with who in turn will develop genuine relationships with the groups they lead? As a senior leader you must trust your mid-level leaders.
But if your organization has less than 150 people, maintaining and building relationships with each and every one of them is doable.