Growth points in working relationships
At times of crisis or unusual stress the presence of trust in working relationships is more than ever vital in helping both individuals and organisations to come through events successfully.
Here are some examples drawn from my own experience of how trust can be grown within working relationships.
I call them “growth points” because they all arose in an otherwise adequate relationship but a particular incident caused the relationship to grow to a deeper level. In all these examples, someone makes a move and the other person is open to the move.
In conclusion I offer thoughts on why the building of trusting relationships is important and on the opportunities that flow from such relationships. I hope that this will get you thinking about the growth points in your own working relationships: why they happened; what was the quality in you that made them happen; and how you might use that quality still further in your other working relationships.
In this and all the examples that follow I was a Director General, Legal, working in-house in government departments. At one time I oversaw recruitment to senior legal posts. I chaired many of the interview boards myself and gave feedback afterwards to the candidates. After one board the candidate who came second asked to see me for feedback. I knew her but not well. She was highly regarded.
I always liked to be open and helpful to candidates if the candidate was equally open to receiving help, but this time, from something that had been said to me, I was expecting a one-way discussion about the board’s un-wisdom in preferring person X over her. From the moment she entered the room, however, the meeting was very different. She genuinely wanted to know how she could improve and this set the tone for a highly fruitful discussion. We talked about strengths (which were considerable) and learning points for the future. I was able to give her good advice which I know she found useful. I’m pretty sure I got some good advice in return, as I still do from her to this day.
During that discussion we built a relationship of openness and trust that stood for the rest of our time in government: we worked closely together and she went on to enjoy a stellar career, including many years as a Director General in government service. On the day after I had had a particularly unpleasant working experience in a later job, she was the first colleague to come round with moral support (“Whatever you’re doing, I’m coming round now for a cup of tea with you.”) We have both left government but we turn to each other for friendship, support and what we call “wise words” when needed.
One day I was at a development event with one of my most senior clients. People were told to pair up and ask the other what they wanted from them. I said that what I wanted from her was for her to ask me to help her, i.e not just to be used as a legal adviser. Very shortly afterwards she asked me to join a senior committee that she was setting up to oversee the day-to-day-running of the department. She didn’t have to. Of course I said yes. A few days later she asked me to chair it. The point here was that she had top level executive responsibility for the subject that the committee was overseeing and she therefore considered that she could trust me as her critical friend to make a success as chair.
It turned out to be one of my most enjoyable roles ever and gave me plenty of opportunities to work closely with her on the practical running of the department. It also enhanced my role on the department’s board.
She then went on to become acting head of the whole department at a point when there was a major political crisis brewing in the form of the collapse of a particular company. It was often top of the news over a period of several months. She and I worked closely together on it. There was an unrelenting set of meetings with ministers, officials across Whitehall and private sector advisers.
One afternoon at about 1.30, after meetings all morning, I looked at her and asked, “What are you doing for food?” She replied, “I hadn’t thought.” I can’t remember who said it first, but we decided to go off together to an Italian restaurant down the road for a long and relaxing lunch. It was the first time we had ever “wasted time” together. During the lunch the bond between us further strengthened. She brought me more into the strategic leadership of the crisis, which she had largely carried on her own. I was better able to give her the personal support that can only come when the other person lets you in. We opened up about how we were each getting on.
Without question this played a big part in our coming through the crisis in good shape both personally and in terms of policies. Because I knew what was in her mind I could also help others around us. It took our relationship up to a new level of friendship which endures to this day: at my advanced age I am pleased to say the she remains my mentor and she claims that I am hers. I look back to that moment when I asked her as my boss that question about lunch and wonder whether somebody else would have replied, “It’s a bit late for lunch - I’ll grab a sandwich” or even “I don’t have time to eat – I’m surprised you do – it’s a crisis, you know!” But she didn’t.
I had just finished a meeting with all my middle and senior managers on a management issue (I now forget what!) that I was putting to them. It had not gone particularly well. I had not been able to capture hearts and minds of enough people in the room. They all trooped out. But two of the middle managers then turned round, came back into the room and closed the door. They said they could see it had not gone well and wanted to talk about how they could help me turn things round. They trusted me to welcome their intervention and thought I was worth the risk of their putting themselves forward to give me feedback and offer to help. I was truly grateful. They did help. I also saw that they were natural leaders. They went on to have more demanding roles and responsibilities, and I enjoyed working closely with them over many years.
A meeting was just ending. People left the room and one of my two hundred junior lawyers turned back for a private word with me. We had never had a serious conversation up to then. She said boldly, “Can you tell me when Y is due to retire because I want his job?” Y was on the next level up and was doing a more than averagely difficult job. She showed her ambition to me in a culture where that sort of conversational gambit is extremely rare and risks getting the brush-off. I was pleased that she had felt able to be so open.
We talked at length over the next few weeks, and it was clear that, along with the high level of ability that I knew she had, there was also a streak of courage and a readiness to take on difficult and less fashionable challenges, which I liked. I realised that she was someone well worth encouraging, and I mentor her to this day. It was not long before she gained her big promotion, although she didn’t get Y’s job because he didn’t retire.
As I write this I am thinking of the occasions when earlier in my career I asked senior people to mentor me. No one ever said no, though we didn’t call it mentoring in those days: it was more like “could I come over for a chat and a bit of advice?”
You may be able to draw the threads of the above examples together better than I can and analyse why they are important. They seem to me to include an openness on both sides to develop or deepen a relationship and a confidence or even courage on the part of someone making a move, and signalling perhaps vulnerability, that the other person will receive the approach in the spirit that it is offered – or perhaps the confidence or courage to take the risk and expose yourself to rejection, however polite. There is then the element of the “growth point” acting as a springboard to the relationship that follows. Everybody will have different examples.
The building of trust is fundamental to productive working relationships and is a critical factor for the in-house lawyer. It can also bring with it other opportunities. For in-house lawyers the creation of trusting relationships enables the lawyer to move beyond being “just a legal adviser” (however important that is) to becoming a trusted sounding board, a “glue” across the organisation, holding people together, and a strategic influencer, working outside the formal professional role, showing capabilities not previously evident to others in the workplace. It enriches your working life; it can widen your networks and introduce you into areas that were previously unknown to you; and it can lead to lasting friendships. It has even led to subjects of the above examples giving me feedback and comments that have enabled me significantly to improve an earlier draft of this article!