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Building Bridges: The Social Side of Success - Part 1

By Richard Walker

Special thanks to interviewer and editor Anna Akbari.

We are social animals, and the workplace is no exception. We live and thrive in communion with others, particularly in the construction industry. But too often we forget to nurture the social side of success. XL is heavily invested in empowering ongoing personal development amongst its employees, and one of the key ways that we expand our knowledge and skillset is via our relationships with other people.

My relationship building philosophy is one of service, not work. People approach relationships — particularly in the professional sphere — from a place of “what can I get?” rather than “what can I give?” I invest in relationships and people because I want to make a positive contribution, not because I feel obligated. I genuinely like helping. It makes me feel useful, which is a reward in itself.

I hope you might examine your existing and potential relationships through a similar lens. As you think about how to enhance your own connections, here is the first of a two-part series on the seven relationship building best practices that have guided me over the course of my career.

1. Nurture Your Network With a Spirit of Reciprocity

There is a lot of debate over the importance of deep versus “weak” ties, and the answer most social scientists arrive at is both. We need a handful of people we know and trust deeply, and we also need a wider network of people with skills and insights that can support us.

We don’t have the capacity to form close relationships with hundreds of people, but that doesn’t mean these other relationships can’t have a profound effect on our lives. We are also offered a chance to transform the lives of those we don’t know intimately through our broader network. Perhaps a loose tie offers a recommendation for a new job or client. Or maybe they offer a piece of advice that makes us shift course. Whatever their contribution, our lives are richer for it. Who are your go-to human resources? Who knows what information, and how can they elevate both you and your projects? 

But of course no relationship is one-directional, even the ones in which we’re acting in service. They all demand some sort of reciprocity. Maybe it’s not an even 50/50 split all the time, but every relationship involves a transaction, and we’re constantly shifting between giving and receiving.

Salespeople rely heavily on their wider networks, and they also know they must give as much as they get. The best salespeople understand their primary role is to build a relationship and be of service — NOT “sell something.” The adage, “Don’t sell; build bridges,” aptly captures a mindset that everyone can benefit from. Approaching relationships from a point of usefulness and understanding lays a more prosperous foundation than cold transactions or a hard-sell.

So as you think about sharpening your relationship building skills, start with your existing network. What can I help these individuals achieve right now? Traditional “networking” can feel disingenuous and self-serving. But when you approach each encounter from a place of how you can best serve in that moment, you constantly pay it forward — even with connections that are still in their infancy or where you have no idea how or if they might someday benefit you.

At different periods in my career, I’ve made a point of staying in touch with people in my professional network, even when they didn’t have business for me. There was always something we could just sit down and talk about, like industry observations or shared problem solving, and I always derived value from those conversations, even when there wasn’t an immediate financial payoff. 

2. Build Internal Relationships with Critical Thinking and Empathy

I’ve had the privilege of operating from many different roles within a lot of different companies. That’s a vantage point not everyone will have, but finding a way to bridge the knowledge gap between what you experience and what your colleagues experience will elevate your success. As much as possible, put yourself in the shoes of the other — and if you can’t, go talk to them and develop empathy. Sympathy is when you’ve actually been in that position; while you might not have sympathy, you can always have empathy. This is one of the traits of being a servant leader. Do we all do that perfectly every day? No. But you can’t lead, serve, or develop meaningful relationships without practicing empathy. Ask yourself: What are the challenges that others in our organization face, and how can I help make them more successful?

That’s how I view my job as CEO. I’m here to help make others successful. That has always been my mission. What do they need to do their job well? Who should I engage? It’s not just about doing my job, but am I helping or hurting what others need to perform their roles? I haven’t always done everything right — at times I’ve forgotten to bring someone into a conversation, or I didn’t put A and B together in a timely way. But, overall, I’ve remained mindful of thinking critically and empathetically about how to help people achieve success. This is at the core of our “we not me” approach, and it’s a value I hope every XL employee will embody. 

3. Strategize, Align, and Serve External Relationships

Developing new relationships outside our organization is as crucial as strengthening your network within it. I think of this as a three-step process:

  • Strategize: Realistically, you don’t have the time to make friends with everyone. Who has a pipeline of business that might benefit you and be relevant to your own work?
  • Align: Does their company culture align with yours? Would you enjoy working with them? Would it be a mutually beneficial fit?
  • Serve: What do they need? How can you help them? Do you have something valuable to bring to the table? This goes beyond merely offering an estimate for your services. Is there something that makes their life difficult? Can you bring a resource to help them solve that problem? Even if there is no immediate job on the table, how can you leverage your expertise in their favor? When in doubt, curiosity will help you determine how best to serve.

When executing this process, tap your existing network for help. Operations people, for instance, often focus on selling other operations people. I prefer to engage our subject matter experts to add more value. We do this with mass timber, where our SMEs educate the client / prospective client on the value of mass timber and how it could benefit them.

Ultimately, your relationship goal is to become a “trusted advisor.” Sometimes someone needs a quick estimate, but other times they just need advice. Over the course of my tenure as CEO, I’ve advised key clients on decisions that had nothing to do with XL. I’ve often been asked, “I know this isn’t your area of expertise, but I’m looking for a contractor for X. How would you go about selecting them?” That’s not an inconvenience or a waste of time; it’s a privilege to be consulted. I’m grateful they value my knowledge and opinion. That’s the true marker of the best possible business relationship: when they reach out about things that are not relevant to the services you provide. It means you’ve proven that you can help them, and they value your approach to problem solving and critical thinking. I value acting as a resource — even when it won’t lead to an immediate job. The generosity always comes back around eventually, perhaps in the form of a referral.

Date Published: 06.24.2024

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