Written by Carla Harris
When you first join a company or organization, you immediately start to build relationships and networks. However, your networks need be horizontally and vertically broad and span all levels within the organization. Relationship currency is created by spending time with people in your organization, getting to know them, sharing ideas with them, or working with them on internal task forces and other company projects. If you consistently have positive interactions with someone, getting to know them beyond their professional title or function—where conversations expand beyond perfunctory professional chatter—will help you start to build a solid relationship. The process for building professional relationships is similar to the way you build them in your personal life. The best ones generally include “frequency of touch,” or frequent and regular interactions and/or shared experiences.
Once you have built true relationship currency, its power will motivate people to act on your behalf. Relationship currency can give you the ability to:
If you have established a strong relationship with someone, you can ask them to do something on your behalf. The something could be as simple as asking them to cover your shift, give you information, or show you how to do a task that will help you complete an assignment. Or it could be something more significant, such as asking someone to support your candidacy for a promotion or for a new assignment.
Every professional environment is made up of tangible work product and subjective judgments. Judgments are made and influenced by people, and oftentimes your relationships can influence someone’s judgment on your behalf.
When I first started my career, we did not prepare our own client presentations. There was a group of people who made up a word processing department that was tasked with preparing presentations. Whenever anyone submitted a presentation, it would go into the queue to be worked on in order of when it was received.
Every time I went to that department, I would take the time to talk to the professionals who worked there. We’d often spend ten to fifteen minutes chatting about the firm, a recent movie, their families, our outside interests. Over time, I established pretty good relationships with almost everyone in the department on both the day and night shifts. There were several occasions when I was working on a transaction and my manager would decide to make some last-minute changes to the client presentation that was due in, let’s say, three hours. I would hurry down to the word processing department, only to find a long queue in place and an estimated five-hour turnaround time at best.
While I did not do it often, if the situation was really dire I would ask my word processing colleagues if they would make an exception for me and move our presentation ahead in the queue. They helped me meet my manager’s deadline every single time. Why? Because we had a relationship. Had I not spent the time getting to know them, I would have been just another associate asking for my work to be done first. The other work in the queue was presumably just as important as what I was submitting, but the power of our relationship motivated them to help me.
Relationship currency also gives you access to relationships you don’t currently have. In large organizations, it is sometimes difficult to get exposure to very senior people or even to those who are just one to two levels above you. The easiest way to connect to people you don’t know is to use or spend the currency that you have developed in a relationship to buy you access to a different one. If you have a good relationship with someone, they will often be willing to introduce you to others and even to use their reputation to vouch for you or to give you an endorsement. When introducing you to someone they know, people will often almost unconsciously say things like, “I’d like you to meet so and so, s/ he and I go way back,” or “s/ he and I have worked together for a long time.”
If you aren’t present when someone is talking about you, they will say things like, “You should meet Olivia, she is good people,” or, “I’ll connect you with my friend/ colleague, Olivia— you’ll love her,” or, “I think that you and Olivia will really hit it off.” When you get that kind of endorsement, you have an opportunity to start a relationship that is already headed in a positive direction, not from anything that you did, but rather based on the other person’s relationship to your colleague or friend making the introduction. This is powerful currency. It takes the goodwill and leverage that exists in one relationship and positively influences the trajectory of a new connection.
Despite the obvious power of relationship currency, I have found many people reluctant to use this tool. Salespeople, financial advisors, and others have said to me, “I don’t want to use my relationship with Person X (a client) to get access to Person Y. I feel like I am intruding on my relationship with Person X.” No matter what your job, your friends, clients, and family can offer networks that can help you establish new relationships.
And if you are really good at what you do, they are usually more than happy to make introductions for you. Take advantage of the strong reputation — the relationship currency — that you have with these constituencies. There is no better advantage to forming a new relationship than to begin it with a strong endorsement from someone who personally knows you. You must remember, you have relationship currency because you’ve earned it. You have spent time getting to know someone, they like you, or you have somehow provided value to them or their endeavors. You’re not going to lose the relationship because you attempt to use the currency you’ve earned to get exposure to another relationship.
The person you ask to make an introduction always has the power to say “no.” And if that happens, you should graciously accept and respect that answer, and continue to move forward in your relationship. However, if they say “yes,” then do your best to create a value-added experience for the person you will now have the chance to meet.
If you have strong relationship currency, it can help you to recover when you make a mistake. If someone really trusts you and believes in your capabilities, they will generally give you another chance to continue to do business with them because of the strength of your relationship. If you do not have a strong relationship with someone and you make a mistake, they will likely move on to another provider of the service or the product or they will no longer have you as a member of their team.
Relationship Currency and Women
Whilst women are very good in forming and sustaining relationships, I find that in corporate environments most women overinvest in performance currency relative to relationship currency.
In my opinion, male professionals start to invest in relationships very early on in their careers, almost simultaneously as they are creating performance currency. Alternatively, I have observed that women professionals tend to focus more on performance currency sometimes to the exclusion of investing in relationship currency. Women want to make sure that the work is stellar, even beyond reproach and that they cannot be criticized on the delivery of the work product. Over time, women continue to focus on the performance and do not invest time into building relationships. I believe that this could be a contributing factor as to why men have traditionally moved ahead a little faster than women.
Who knows you? Who trusts your work? Who believes that you have excellent judgment, and that you can manage and inspire people? Who feels like they know you well enough to consider you to be one of their partners? If you are a female professional, I urge you to divert some of your energies away from performance currency and start investing in the key relationships in your environment. I am not saying that you can abandon your efforts to put points on the board, because without them you won’t be able to move ahead.
What I am saying is that you should start to focus on building relationships and earning relationship currency as soon as possible. Certainly, if you’re a senior-level woman who has been with a company for a long period of time and are trying to move to the next level, you’ll have to focus disproportionately on building relationship currency. Your currency as a performer has already been established in the organization and offers you diminishing marginal returns at this stage of your career. Your upside is in creating stronger relationship currency.