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Do you need to improve your effectiveness as a leader? Start with how you build and sustain relationships.

Relationship building was identified by 2 recent CCL studies as a key skill for leaders. Whether you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or the principal of an elementary school, relationship skills matter a lot.

Leaders who are skilled at building and maintaining relationships share several traits. Here’s what many effective leaders have in common in terms of relationship skills:

  1. A leader must be self-aware. Self-awareness includes knowing your strengths and weaknesses, but also the impact that your behavior has on others. For example, say a small business owner takes pride in personally managing client relationships. She also realizes that her hands-on style can frustrate her staff by creating the appearance that she doesn’t trust or appreciate them. By taking into account the impact of her behavior, the business owner can adjust how she relates to her clients and employees.
  2. An effective leader should be willing to delegate important tasks and decision making. Delegating — besides being an efficient way to lead — helps to build experience and confidence in others. It also forces leaders to give honest, consistent feedback and to motivate and reward people for their hard work. Think about the parent who teaches his kid to pick up after herself. While it may be slow-going at first, eventually the child develops the skill and is able to help around the house.
  3. Skilled leaders must also have good interpersonal skills. They should be able to negotiate and handle work problems without alienating others. This requires understanding others’ perspectives and needs. Leaders with honed relationship skills develop rapport with all kinds of people. Have you ever known a school principal who is equally comfortable with students, parents, teaching staff, and school board? If so, you’ve seen people skills at their best.
  4. Effective leaders must have a participative management style. Strong leaders use effective listening skills and communication to involve others, build consensus, and influence decisions. Compare the styles of 2 city mayors, for example. One mayor is participative; the other autocratic. Initially, the mayor who values relationships and broad communication appears to be less effective than the more independent-minded mayor. But, as time passes, the participative mayor is able to build support for key initiatives and is considered a good leader and skilled administrator. In contrast, the authoritarian mayor faces many political roadblocks and becomes highly controversial.

One other significant point — the importance of feedback. Giving and receiving effective feedback is one of the best ways leaders can improve their relationship skills. Feedback lets people know how they’re doing, reinforces goals, and encourages strong effort. When giving feedback, make sure to focus on a single message, being specific, and be sensitive. And remember to judge the behavior, not the person.

Being good at relationships isn’t just a personality trait. And the good news for everyday leaders is that we can all improve.

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