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Building Solid Business Relationships

Morag Barrett is the best-selling author of Cultivate: The Power of Winning Relationships and The Future-Proof Workplace. She is also the founder and CEO of SkyeTeam, an international leadership development company. We had a chance to speak with Morag about why strong relationships are the most important factor in business success.

Tell us a bit About Your Background. Why did you Decide to Create SkyeTeam?

I was originally planning to be an engineer, but instead I spent 10+ years in finance. I had the opportunity to work with many companies and industries, and I had to decide whether to lend money to support their growth plans. What I realized very quickly is that having a great product, service, or idea is not enough to guarantee success. The companies that were successful (which in those days meant they could pay my bank back) were the ones that invested as much time and effort in how business got done.

I started SkyeTeam as I saw good companies, teams, and individuals fail because of a lack of attention to cultivating professional relationships. We’ve now worked with more than 4,000 leaders from 20 countries and on 4 continents. The message is clear: you cannot be successful in business or in life unless you are successful in cultivating winning relationships.

What Common Problems Within a Company or Organization can Often be Traced Back to Weak or Unproductive Relationships?

Most problems can be traced back to misaligned expectations or different styles. It’s the mislabelled “soft skills” that ensure you can deliver the hard results!

  • Working with a difficult colleague
  • Plagued with the worst of office politics, shifting alliances, and silos
  • Looking to take your career to the next level
  • An important project has suffered another setback

We are often asked to help solve what appear to be business problems but turn out to be relationship issues. For example, a global company had invested two years preparing to launch a new product, only to encounter cost overruns and ongoing delays. When we interviewed the team, we found there was a lack of clarity regarding roles and responsibilities, no accountability for results, and infighting and politics within the team. We took the group through a series of facilitated events that ensured everyone was on the same page. They may not have all liked each other, but they were able to work together respectfully. As a result, the project was back on track and launched on time.

What is an “Ally Mindset,” and why is it Important for Success?

An “Ally mindset” is the foundation for cultivating your professional relationships. Whether your network of relationships is working for you or against you, you are not a victim. You have helped create your relationship portfolio by action or inaction. Being smart and technically excellent at what you do are the table stakes for entry into your profession. What research continues to show is that you need to master the interpersonal and social skills and invest in your professional relationships to ensure long-term success in your career. It’s easy to be an Ally when the times are good. The real test of any relationship is what happens when things aren’t going to plan.

Are the Challenges Being Faced by Executives and Corporate Leaders the Same Around the World?

Or are there any differences depending on the country or continent?

I have had the opportunity to work with leaders across the globe, and they all share similar stories and frustrations with the relationships with their colleagues. How adversarial behavior is demonstrated may vary by region, but the underlying stress and the impact of poor working relationships remain the same.

What are Some of the Most Pressing Issues Facing Human Resources Departments Today?

HR departments are at the forefront of change. Changing expectations as to what is work, demographics with a longer working life, and globalization are bringing new challenges to how we organize and structure work. Unfortunately, many of our HR practices are still rooted in the 18th century, when they were designed to control an illiterate workforce who work in the office. They’re certainly not designed for the modern era of the flexible workforce (gig economy) or the fast pace of change. I believe that our attitudes toward work, where, how, why, and when it happens need to transform.

When you Conduct a Team Building Program at a Company, How do you Ensure That the Teams Will Improve Their Performance Going Forward After the Program is Complete?

Our approach is to focus on team building as a journey, not a destination. It’s likely the team has worked its way into its current state over a period of time, and as such won’t be “cured” or moved to the next level in one hour! Here’s our approach:

  • Before – involve the whole team in diagnosing the strengths, gaps, and needs of the team. We conduct interviews with everyone and include stakeholders/customers of the team to understand what is working and what is not.
  • During – Develop a high-impact and active team retreat that includes business and team needs. Success is the elegant balance of both elements.
  • After – include ongoing reinforcement and accountability to ensure that the behaviors become embedded in how the team does business.

When you’re trying to diagnose the needs of an organization as part of a leadership development program, are there any areas where companies are commonly deficient that corporate leaders may be unaware of?

Often, we find that the leaders are the blind spot. They have either stopped asking the question, “How do we improve” and so no longer see the need for change, or they ask the question but aren’t open to hearing the answer. Unfortunately, change is not a silver bullet. It requires effort, practice, and unlearning old behaviors. Without the commitment to ask the tough questions, listen to the responses, and follow through, then nothing will change. The common deficit is a lack of commitment to one or more of these areas.

What advice would you give to an executive who is trying to navigate a difficult occupational transition?

The biggest mistake any of us can make (and I know because I have done it) is to try and navigate any difficult occupational transition alone. This is why having an Ally, or ideally a team of Allies, is invaluable. When we are on a team of Allies, making a mistake becomes a learning opportunity. Taking informed risk is an energizing and deliberate choice rather than one to be avoided, and the challenge can be shared. Whether it’s sharing the transition with your team, or with an executive coach/leadership expert like myself, your success is likely to be enhanced and the risks reduced. Success is a journey best shared with an Ally!

In the future, what types of corporate leaders or leadership styles will be fall by the wayside because they are unsuccessful, unprofitable, and/or counterproductive?

In The Future-Proof Workplace, we discuss how the old-school command-and-control style of leadership will fall by the wayside. The “brilliant jerk” that may have been tolerated in the past will not be accepted in the future. Instead, we will see an overt move to servant leadership and collaborative leadership – an approach that links to a greater purpose and a positive legacy.

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