Why Great Leaders Rely on Strong Professional Relationships

professional relationships


This following is an excerpt from Connected Leadership: How Professional Relationships Underpin Executive Success by Andy Lopata. To learn more, check out Andy Lopata’s free webinar.

“No man is an island entire of itself;

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.”


Devotions upon Emergent Occasions


Despite the popular image of the strong leader, from charismatic politicians to Silicon Valley billionaires, John Donne’s words still ring true 400 years after they were written. In my opinion, nobody can reach their full potential without the help of others; as leaders, the sum of the parts around us definitely is greater than the whole.

As leaders, the sum of the parts around us definitely is greater than the whole.

Each of us brings certain qualities to the table. We each have experience that has taught us the response we feel is most likely to be successful in certain scenarios; we have expertise developed over years of learning and applying those lessons; we have a way of looking at the world that helps us to find solutions.

For everything we do have, however, there is something we lack. If our experience gives us strength in one scenario, a lack of relevant experience may leave us struggling in another. We may be the world’s greatest expert in certain areas but no better off than a beginner in others. And our perspective may provide one possible solution but our blind spots could mean that we miss an approach that is simpler or more effective.

What we can also have in our armoury though is a network of contacts whose own qualities complement ours. People with different experience, expertise and worldview who can plug the gaps.

Strong professional relationships are the powerful resource that helps modern-day leaders maximise their impact in every area of responsibility, not just the ones they naturally excel in. They help leaders to inspire and to innovate, to grow and to stabilise and to keep everyone motivated and working together – from employees to shareholders.

Professional relationships are not something to be left to chance, as an afterthought or even taught as a skill. A strong leader will take a strategic approach to developing the right relationships, nurturing them so that they are strong and robust and leveraging them to ensure that they and their organisation benefit.

You can often tell the quality of a leader not just from the quality of his or her relationships, but by the ease with which they draw on them and the speed and willingness with which people respond.

Once they have mastered that strategy personally, they will then make sure that it becomes an integral part of the organisation’s culture, from bottom to top. Because together we can achieve so much more than we can on our own.

Blowing Bubbles

Most of the senior executives and successful entrepreneurs I work with are time poor and have many different challenges coming at them from all directions. They are often in a position where, as the most senior person in their organisation, the buck stops with them and they need to be strong in their decision making.

working together professional relationshipsThe majority of advice they receive, whether from inside or outside their firm, will come from people in a similar role and/or the same industry. As a result, they are working in a bubble; not accessing new ideas, the type of ideas that could lead to real breakthroughs in long-running challenges.

This means that they are exacerbating the issues of being time poor by perpetuating the same challenges and wasting time with tired old solutions.

When an unexpected event has a big impact on the business, the bubble gets smaller and more robust. During the early days of the Coronavirus/Covid-19 outbreak in the UK I spoke to more than one business leader who was self-isolating. But not in the way that the Government was suggesting.

Understandably, they were working long hours trying to protect their business from the damage caused by a downturn in the economy and a nation hiding behind closed doors. But they were so busy trying to work on solutions that they stopped talking to each other to share their ideas.

The more leaders work in isolation, the less chance there is of learning from each other’s successes and failures. Vital time can be lost as a result. In addition, the smaller and less diverse the circle of advice, the more we see reinforcement of existing opinions rather than the different views and challenges that are necessary to innovate and find better solutions.

How Professional Relationships Underpin Leadership Challenges

Modern leaders face a range of challenges in their role, from selling their vision, growing the business and managing change to recruitment and retention of the right team. Underpinning the solutions to all of those challenges are professional relationships. There are few challenges that can’t be more readily solved with the help of other people.

In January 2020 I spoke at a forum for event organisers. The opening keynote speaker was Nalan Emre, COO of the global convention organiser IMEX. Nalan’s presentation was focused on how IMEX were working to make all of their events as sustainable as possible. Nalan outlined the three key factors that made it possible to progress towards that objective. The second one was ‘Collaboration’.

During the course of her presentation, Nalan listed the different stakeholders who each played a vital role in making the sustainability drive a success. There were the internal teams. Not just one team but the different departments within IMEX with responsibility for the event. There were suppliers such as the venue, the caterers, the transportation companies, stand builders and designers. And there were the clients – exhibitors, advertisers, delegates.

Each of those stakeholders needed to be on board. The more cooperative they were in making the changes that IMEX asked for, the more achievable the objective. Nalan said during her talk, “Once stakeholders join in, your activity gets multiplied.”

Whatever you are looking to achieve, if you have a network of people to support you it will be easier to achieve your objective. People whose cooperation you rely upon; who can advise you and give you the benefit of their experience; who can influence others and open doors.

Professional relationships - andy lopata


The (6) 7 Performance Change Levers of ‘Relational Leaders’

Italian leadership expert Luca Signoretti shares his Six Performance Change Levers of ‘Relational Leaders’. Signoretti says that relational leaders ‘have highly developed relationship-building skills as part of their skillset, in order to obtain the vital cooperation from all of the stakeholders (both internal and external) involved in generating the leader’s and organisation’s performance’.

Signoretti argues that strong relationships improve the performance of leaders in six ways.

  1. Agility – enhance their ability to drive change and take advantage of new opportunities.
  2. Talent Development – elicit a higher level of talent engagement by building closer, collaborative relationships.
  3. Knowledge and Skills – Improve performance by accessing current knowledge through valuable professional networks.
  4. Collaboration – Increase collaboration with all stakeholders because of increased trust.
  5. Creativity and Innovation – Connecting internal resources with external expertise.
  6. Growth Opportunities – Reaching out to new potential clients and opportunities through shared networks.

I would add a seventh lever to Signoretti’s list, one that I think is increasingly important in a world that is more aware of the importance of vulnerability and protecting our mental wellbeing.

7. Support – A trusted network of people who will listen without judging and advise without prejudice.

Building Broad Networks

A number of years ago I delivered a presentation at the London office of a well-known Australian bank. Before the audience arrived I was introduced to the CEO of the UK operation, who asked me to share what I was going to be speaking about.

As I explained the outline of my talk, the CEO grabbed a pen and turned over a new sheet on the flipchart standing at the front of the room.

“Are you going to speak about this?” he asked enthusiastically, as he drew a pyramid on the flipchart.

relationship pyramid

“When I started working at the bank there were a lot of people at my level for me to share with and talk to. As I progressed through the organisation, those numbers shrank… until now, where there’s just me at my level.”

“So I had to go outside the bank to build my network; to find people who shared similar challenges and frustrations and in whom I could confide.”

relationship pyramids x 2 

“In fact,” he carried on, “I’ve reached this role in my career as much because of my networks in media, politics and other industries as for my performance and expertise in banking.”

Successful leaders tend to be connected, and the more connected they are, the more successful they are likely to be. Not connected for the sake of it but connected to learn, to grow, to share and to seek support. Phil Jones MBE, the MD of Brother UK, believes that networks are essential to successful leadership. For Phil, leadership is not purely about focusing on the bottom line, as important as that is. Relationships internally and externally are key, in fact they feed that bottom line.

Phil told me, “The intellectual and social currency that a leader brings to their business will produce greater results than purely financial currency.” He stressed the importance of wide-ranging conversations and how they can impact the business, telling me, “Unless the leader is connecting inside and outside and inhaling different conversations, he or she cannot breathe ideas back into the business.”

Employ a Professional Relationships Strategy

Despite the influence of key relationships inside and outside our businesses, many organisations leave professional relationships to chance. We invest time and resources in technical training (naturally) and key thinking on the challenges that affect us, but not on encouraging, enabling and developing the relationships that underpin the solutions to those challenges.

Professional relationships should be front of mind for everyone in your organisation. Teach the importance of networking and building relationships from entry level on. But that includes at the leadership level too. Lead from the front and focus on making sure that the right relationships are in place and strong enough to help you to achieve your objectives.

Over the course of the coming pages I will look at the key elements you need to consider when putting a professional relationships strategy in place. We will look at:

Building professional relationships – knowing where the gaps in your network are and making sure that you are connected to the key people who can make your life easier.

Nurturing professional relationships – strengthening those connections by deepening the relationship and staying in touch despite all the other claims on your time.

And finally:

Leveraging professional relationships – seeking the help you need from those who are happy to give it.

As a leader, you are far more likely to be successful if you are connected to people who are able to help you, who want to help you and who know how to help you. People who will be able to help you:

  • Feel less isolated and more supported when trying to convince people of your plan of action
  • Innovate and problem-solve in a supportive and non-judgmental environment
  • Grow the profile of your team, your division or your organisation both internally and externally and ensure that you are better able to manage what people know you for
  • Develop new business opportunities and key connections who will support your objectives and help you achieve them
  • Develop your own personal career further, leading to greater opportunities and more senior roles

My goal is to show you the way.

This article is an excerpt from the book, Connected Leadership: How Professional Relationships Underpin Executive Success by Andy Lopata. To learn more about how to build and maintain relationships that can boost your career, check out Andy Lopata’s free webinar.

About the Author

A specialist in professional relationships and networking for over 20 years, Andy Lopata was called ‘one of Europe’s leading business networking strategists’ by the Financial Times and ‘a true master of networking’ by the Independent and Forbes.com. A very experienced international speaker, Andy is the author of five books, has been quoted in a number of other business books and regularly quoted in the international press. Andy is President of the Fellows Community of the Professional Speaking Association UK & Ireland (PSA) and a Fellow of the Learning and Performance Institute as well as a Master of the Institute for Sales Management. He is also one of just 26 recipients of the PSA’s top honour, the ‘Award of Excellence’.