Every one of us is surrounded by, and dependent on, other human beings—at work, at home, in daily life. Some of these people we choose to be with, while for some others, we have to accept their presence. All of them together influence us and shape our lives, and our careers, in a multitude of ways. This white paper explores the many ways that relationships shape our careers, for better (as tools for access, support, and sense-making) or for worse (as obstacles). It is based on a five-country study by the Center for Creative Leadership of men and women managers in wider Europe.

When Anne, a successful controlling manager, started to work for her new company in Madrid, she was eager to make a fresh start, work hard, show her competence, strive in her new job, but also maintain a better work-life balance than in her old job. At the same time, Leo joined the company as a senior account manager. He knew he was a great salesperson and wanted to prove himself with some key accounts in a new industry.

Three years later: Leo has shown steady performance on his accounts, retaining all but one of them and acquiring two new ones. Yet when asked whether he is happy, he shakes his head, saying he doesn’t see much of a future in the organization. Even though he works hard and knows he has the skills to be an excellent account manager, people just don’t seem willing to help him when he needs their cooperation. He is tired of constantly fighting internal battles in order to deliver excellent customer service. Anne, on the other hand, has also proven herself in her new job. Anne is happy—she got a promotion while pregnant, and she feels that even her maternity break hasn’t damaged her career. She attributes her success to the people around her, who reach out and help her in many ways, both big and small. A colleague’s mother-in-law has become her default babysitter. Anne is glad that her colleagues remain friendly and professional even if she encounters serious conflicts with some of them, mainly about internal audits.

Anne and Leo started off in nearly identical situations. What’s different three years later is the kinds of relationships that Anne and Leo have developed. These relationships shaped their professional lives over the three years that Anne and Leo have been with the company, and have had a major impact on their career and job satisfaction.

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