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A new approach: Leadership IS relationship

In his new book, Nigel Purse talks about the critical need for leaders to build trusting relationships with employees of all levels, and reveals the key conversations they need to have to do this.

A Fortune 500 company in the financial services sector recently hired Robert, a senior executive from a competitor with the deliberate intention of appointing him the successor to a long standing, and successful CEO. Robert had been the number two in his old business and was widely respected in the sector for being a shrewd and technically-savvy operator. His role was to run a major part of the business over a two year period to learn the ropes so that he would be ready to step into the existing CEO's shoes at the end of that period. Analysts, investors and commentators were informed of the plan, and the organisation lined up behind the CEO and his new hire to make it happen.

As the two year deadline approached, staff and commentators alike were astounded to learn that Robert had resigned. The CEO was embarrassed to have lost his successor. Analysts marked the business down and the stock price dipped.

What went wrong? We had the opportunity to talk with a number of senior executives who were present in the business over the two year period and their observations are telling. Robert moved into his appointed office on the C-suite level of a Canary Wharf tower. He put in place an infrastructure of processes, reports and regular meetings in order to manage his part of the business. He published his vision for the future of the business and defined the values it would stand for. He was diligent, efficient and business like, turning up for work early every morning and working late into the evening. But within a few months a key member of his team left to join a competitor, and then another, and a third found a transfer into another part of the business. Performance dipped and several other key individuals left or made it clear internally they were looking to move. What was happening? This is what some executives from the business told us.

"We couldn't work for him. It was just too hard. You never knew where you were with him. One day he would be charming and warm; the next he would cut you off at the knees in a meeting. He never left his office or walked round the business and talked to people. It was impossible to build a relationship with him."

In so many organisations today leaders seem to have forgotten (or never learnt) the power and importance of simply being human - of building personal trusting relationships with those they lead, of listening to others with care and humanity, of making things happen through deep emotional engagement with the people in their teams.

As we approach the third decade of the 21st century we believe there is now compelling evidence that we need to enter a new era of leadership where the requirement for leaders to build and maintain genuinely trusting relationships with those they lead takes centre stage.

It is possible to work at, practice and become better at building effective, trusting relationships by re-discovering a fundamental truth - the power of honest, authentic, two way human conversations at work. Somehow in today's world of technology, email, social media, remote working and globalisation we have forgotten this. As human beings, relationships matter deeply to us. We can't function effectively without them and that applies just as much at work as it does at home.

But how do effective leaders build trusting relationships? We now know that effective leaders use authentic, two way human conversations to build trusting, and productive relationships with team members and others around them.

And the real beauty of this finding is that you don't have to be slick, word perfect, or a great conversationalist for this to work. You just have to be authentic - to enter each conversation with the genuine intention of more deeply understanding your colleague, showing care and stewardship, and providing support and encouragement.

Through our work with thousands of leaders in hundreds of organisations around the world we have identified the five critical conversations that the most effective leaders use to build and sustain trusting relationships. Here are the conversations.

  1. Establishing a trusting relationship - a conversation with a team member to share a deep, mutual understanding of your respective drivers, preferences, motivators and de-motivators for high performance at work, and to understand what makes each other tick
  2. Agreeing mutual expectations - a conversation about not only what you are both trying to achieve at work, but also why, and the expectations you can have to support each other in achieving these outcomes
  3. Showing genuine appreciation - a conversation to help a team member focus on where they are being successful, to jointly understand the reasons for their success, to say how much you appreciate their contribution and find further ways in which they can deploy their skills and talents to benefit both themselves and the organisation
  4. Challenging unhelpful behaviour - a conversation to agree a new and more effective set of behaviours where what a team member or colleague is saying or doing is getting in the way of team performance
  5. Building for the future - a conversation to explore the future career aspirations of a team member and give you the best possible chance of creating conditions that will enable them to build that future career within your organisation rather than elsewhere

You may feel these conversations sound simple and obvious and perhaps they are. But every leader we talk to agrees with this fundamental observation - in today's world of work they simply don't happen - either enough or at all.

This article is an adapted extract from '5 Conversations: How to transform trust, engagement and performance at work' written by Nigel Purse and Nick Cowley (with Lynn Allison), published by Panoma Press (price £14.99). For more information, visit



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