Building Relationships with Intent
As a leader, one of your superpowers is how you can connect your team with someone else. For example, if your team is struggling to work with an API and you know someone who's made recent changes or is a Subject Matter Expert, you can get your team unblocked and moving faster.
I've worked with leaders like this, and it's amazing how fast and helpful it is to get unstuck quickly. Don't get me wrong, sometimes it's the right strategy to "burn the time" to learn, but it's helpful to know someone who can get you unstuck if you need it.
With one leader, it seemed like they always knew a guy, no matter the topic, and I was amazed at how they did it. So like a lifelong learner, I asked, and they told me networking.
If you're like me, you hear networking and think about dozens (if not hundreds) of people milling around, introducing themselves, and sharing business cards. Don't get me wrong, that approach can work for some people, but to me, that sounds exhausting. Instead of a hummingbird, going from flower to flower, I'm more like a bear. I just want to sit down and eat my jar of honey.
So what am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to network if I don't like large groups?
Given time, you can work on becoming more comfortable in large groups. However, why fight your natural tendencies and what you're good at?
For me, it's small groups and one-on-one conversations. As such, that's my approach to networking. Though it takes a bit longer, I find that I build stronger relationships with those people, and in turn, can be just as successful. I like to think about one-on-ones as lazy river conversations as I never know where it will take us.
One Cup of Coffee
At a previous company, we used Slack and, as such, had an integration called Random Coffee that would pair the members of a channel up to get together for the week. Such a simple idea, but so powerful when you now have a built-in excuse to chat with someone.
After a couple of weeks of getting to know people, I started learning what others did, what interests them, and who to go to about specific issues. Combine that with asking, "How did you know that?" I found that I could quickly fill gaps in my knowledge.
But something else happened. Once I knew the person, I didn't see them as a name in the chat anymore, I saw them as their selves. I'd find myself saying, "Oh, it's Chris, and Chris is cool, so I'll help him out," instead of thinking, "Ugh, another thing to do." In a way, these conversations humanized those I worked with, and I found myself caring more about them.
Caring By Knowing
To me, this is the most important thing about relationship building and networking. Deep down, I want to care about those I work with because I want them to be successful. I can't help them be successful if I don't know them both as a colleague and as a person.
Having one-on-ones is how I know my people and how I continue building care. It might be as simple as knowing what types of things they like to work on or what they did over the weekend. However, having these conversations helps both of us open up, and I get to know them so much better. Once I know them, I can guide and direct them better, looking for opportunities I wouldn't have thought of before.
How Do I Start?
If you want to start this for your own company, you don't have to have Slack to make this happen. The important thing is getting buy-in from others and explaining the why behind the exercise.
Once you have buy-in, you can start low-tech by using an Excel sheet and randomizing the list of names. This isn't the most robust solution, but it's a start and you can iterate as you figure out the timing, the frequency, and the other steps that setting this up would look like.
Once you've got something in motion, you can always work on automating the process later. Don't let a perfect solution stop you from starting with a good solution.
What I've found successful is having either a weekly or fortnightly scheduled message in our main channel that assigns the groups. From there, participants are encouraged to share something they've learned about their counterparts during their conversation. To help make sure that people meet, scheduling a set time during the week for all the groups can be helpful as it removes another barrier (e.g., if you know that you'll have coffee at 10:30 am on Tuesdays, you learn to expect it).
If you have a group that is just starting, it might be helpful to provide some starting questions to help jump-start the conversation. A good list of questions can be found in one of my gists.
To be a successful leader, you must cultivate and grow relationships with those you work with. Not only does it help your team be successful, but it allows you to have a richer experience with your work and helps solidify that we're all working together.