Acquiring ‘relational skills’ early in your career can maximise your potential to reach the top in business

There is growing evidence that developing skills in interacting with and relating to others will be a key requirement for successful leadership, say Lee Waller and Sona Sherratt. But how can these skills be nurtured and developed?

What do you know now, that allows you to perform at your best, that you wish you had known 10 years ago?

This was a question we asked as part of a research project to understand the skills required for leadership in the 21st century. When we posed that question to more than 500 leaders, the top answer we heard back was: ‘We wish we had better relational skills’, with twice the number of mentions as the next most frequently reported skill of ‘leading others’.

The individuals we surveyed came from a range of industries, from countries across the globe, had a broad spectrum of experience, and held positions from first line managers through to CEOs and Managing Directors. As such, some were just stepping into the workforce 10 years ago, while others had been in employment all of their adult lives. And yet, for all these groups, being better able to develop and manage relationships emerged as the most important skill that was missing from their repertoires ten years earlier in their careers.

Interacting with and relating to others

Relational skills refer to how well we interact with and relate to other people. They include the ability to communicate effectively, convey our message and engage others. They involve the ability to actively listen in order to understand meaning and intention, not just words, and to pay attention to non-verbal communication such as body language and tone. They incorporate our capacity for empathy, and to understand the perspective of others, and they include our effectiveness in establishing good relationships with those with whom we work as well as our networks across organisations and industries.

These relational skills are critical to our ability to influence others and impact the decisions that are made that will impact on us. They are critical to our ability to negotiate and debate, to come to agreement, to sell to our customers, and to manage conflict in our teams. We need relational skills in order to communicate the need for and the process of change and to sensitively manage difficult conversations and situations.

As articulated by one of our participants, relational skills support: ‘Authentic discussions with individuals that get to the root of issues. Nipping things in the bud, not waiting until they develop into difficult problems.’

Our skill in developing and maintaining relationships with others is also critical to our ability to work as part of a team, to motivate our team members, to establish high performing teams, and to effective collaboration which allows us to access different perspectives and arrive at innovative solutions to problems and challenges. And at a fundamental level, relational skills are vital to our ability to feel connected in the workplace, to be able to develop meaningful relationships based on mutual trust and understanding, supporting the development of our sense of self-worth and belonging.

A key requirement

The importance of relational skills for leaders is not news. There is a growing body of research that suggests that developing effective relational skills continues to be a key requirement for successful leaders in the 21st century impacting a range of performance outcomes as well as subordinates’ perceptions of leaders, which in turn impacts their motivation and their commitment to the leader and to the organisation. But what the research that we conducted does highlight for us is that relational skills are critical to our performance at work and to our well-being in the workplace throughout our careers – not just when we step into a leadership role and are responsible for managing a team, but from the moment that we step into our first organisation, join our first team, report to our first manager, and engage with our first client.

And yet,the majority of programmes and courses designed to developrelational skills are offered as part of leadership development – they are invested in once employees take on that first leadership role, after they have a good number of work experience years under their belts. As such, employees are missing out on valuable development, valuable understanding and insight which could have helped them navigate their paths much more successfully through the first years of their working lives, helped them to perform better in their work, and supported the success of their teams and their organisations.

A need for change

We would argue that this needs to change, both inside organisations and in Business Schools. Incorporating relational skills development as an integral and fundamental element of both postgraduate and undergraduate programmes would not only ensure that students enter the workplace better able to manage and develop relationships, but also help students to manage and develop relationships with their classmates during their studies, facilitating both the effectiveness of group work and the development of their sense of self-worth and connectedness, and ultimately their well-being as a student.

Organisations too, should start to offer relational skills development to all employees at the start of their careers, perhaps as part of induction programmes or socialisation practices. This will greatly enhance employees’ ability to integrate themselves into their new organisations as well as support them in developing relationships that will help them to feel connected, that will facilitate collaboration and learning, and ultimately enhance their performance and well-being in the workplace.

If budgets do not support dedicated development, leaders themselves should certainly be encouraged to support the development of these skills in their direct reports through the feedback they provide. This performance feedback might help their team members to understand, for example, the impact that their communication style, their body language, the way in which they interact, their ability to listen and to empathise, can have on how they are received by others and are able to interact in the workplace. And guidance on how they can develop these skills would encourage the establishment  of healthy and productive relationships in the workplace, that will not only support them throughout their careers, but likely accelerate their rise to leadership in the future.  

Lee Waller is a Member of leadership faculty at Hult Ashridge, working with leaders to help them develop an awareness of their strengths, areas of growth, and sense of self, and teaching a range of leadership skills including influencing, resilience, and leading through others.

Sona Sherratt is a Faculty Member at Ashridge where she designs, teaches and client directs on several executive education programmes with clients such as SAB Miller, Swarovski, Heineken, and Continental.

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