EXECUTIVE IMPACT

Friends in High Places: Why Execs Need to Strategically Build Friendships at Every Level

Photo credit: Mek Frinchaboy

By Lindsey Galloway

More than just a sounding board, our work friends can give us air cover, help us navigate our careers, and assist with achieving our in-office objectives. In fact, women who have a best friend at work are twice as likely to be engaged in their job than women without, according to research by Gallup.

Within the C-Suite, these types of close friendships are even more essential to executive success, as having allies across an organization opens communication channels and can help build strategic buy-in. But cultivating these types of relationships takes intentional focus and outreach.

Dr. Kerry Mitchell Brown, an equity strategist and cultural architect, calls this process "friendraising," which she defines as the process of proactively building relationships with other people at all levels of the organization. "You want as many people as possible who understand you well enough that they can represent your interests, even when you're not present," she said.

For instance, if a leader were to always leave her camera off during a morning Zoom call, other attendees might chatter offline about what it might mean in terms of her engagement. But a trusted friend can share additional information, without the executive having to announce it herself.  "Someone can say, 'Well, you know she's nursing, but I do know she's fully present and engaged on the other side of the screen,'" says Dr. Brown. "It gives people perspective that they didn't have."

The Challenge of Remote Connections

Creating these kinds of relationships can be harder than ever, however, especially now that remote work has become the norm for many organizations. But it's still worth taking the extra step to connect with people you find interesting or people you'd like to engage with.

As a first step, it can be valuable to invite people with different perspectives or expertise a chance to give insight on a project  in order to unearth potential blind spots. "As part of that process, you're starting to build a rapport with someone," said Dr. Candace Steele Flippin, author of the forthcoming Get Your Career in SHAPE.

Dr. Flippin has also seen women effectively build allies by reaching out to other people they might have something in common with, and building a community around that interest — for example, recommending a book that fellow leaders might be interested in and hosting a get-together (in person or on Zoom) to discuss it.

Casting a wide net can also be helpful, particularly when working remote or when new to an organization. Dr. Flippin started her current role during the pandemic, so in order to replicate the office environment, she came up with a list of 75 people within the organization she wanted to get to know and put 30-minute calls on their calendar, and scheduled four to six calls a week.

"I have a conversation with them as though we were sitting across from each other having coffee," she said. "I introduce myself, talk about my family, talk about why I joined the company, and ask them questions." The calls are a way to keep the lines of communication open when she would have otherwise chatted with them after a meeting, run into each other in the hallway, or attended a conference together.

More Personal Than Ever

Though there was once a time when executive women were advised to keep their personal life under wraps, that trend has been changing. In fact, showing some vulnerability can help a leader build deeper friendships at work and encourage others to bring more authenticity to their jobs.

"There was a period in my career where I didn't share a whole lot about who I was and that was something I needed to unlearn," says Dr. Brown. "Curiosity is curiosity. If you don't give people information, they make up their own."

To help head that off, she suggests leaders have a list of open-ended questions to ask of people within the organization, such as "What is the one thing you're curious about me?" This kind of openness can help quickly reveal commonalities that can bring people together and create lasting bonds.

The Gift of Friendship

Beyond the strategic advantages to having allies within an organization, making and maintaining friendships can also be seen as a gift to yourself, especially as an executive where the job can often be stressful and lonely.

"These roles can bring great fulfillment, but they're also tough," says Dr. Flippin. "So it just really helps having a work friend to be there for you and help you steer clear of the tall weeds. Or just someone where you can walk into their office, close the door, lift your hands up and go, 'Why?'"

The relationships built at one organization often last longer than the job or even the company itself. Those friends can be allies for the long-term, suggesting new opportunities or helping navigate common challenges. Long after leaving a role, leaders often find that the investments made in cultivating work friendships are the ones that pay career-long dividends.