Don't burn bridges you might need later in your career

A career in business will put you into contact with a wide range of people, so maintaining contact with them can prove useful, explains Academy for Chief Executives CEO Andrew Morris.

The world we’re living in is more connected than ever, so the chance of bumping into people you’ve met during your career is huge. It’s a kind of synchronicity that happens all the time: at least twice a week I’ll meet someone who knows me – if not directly, then through another contact.

So we need to look after these relationships. How you behave towards people, especially in difficult situations, can either bite you in the backside or shake your hand in future. Ultimately, it’s about maintaining a good reputation. That could determine if you win or lose a contract or can attract a talented person to your company.

This even applies to people you have to fire. This should be done in such a way that if you met them years later, you could sit down together and have a laugh about it.

I recently found myself in front of someone I had to let go in the past. Here I was, in front of this individual, pitching to him. But we talked about it up front, got it out of the way and I won the contract.

Inevitably we make enemies, but if you’ve wronged someone you should go out of your way to right the situation. OK, so sometimes someone will be so hurt that they’ll hold you up as the devil. There’s little you can do here. Perhaps, with time and reflection, conflicts will be forgotten. But in the meantime, back away.

It’s also important to invest in relationships beyond the easy ones. It’s little effort to invest in relationships that are fun, but spreading your energy more widely can pay off longer term. Take the financial community: there are plenty of stories of lenders closing the doors on entrepreneurs, but try to put yourself in their shoes. They also have a job to do.

Leaders should be conscious, too, of how ‘watched’ we are today: social media will mercilessly expose poor leadership behaviour – as Kelly Blazek recently found out when her rude response to a graduate on LinkedIn went viral.

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Cross words, inappropriate remarks and temper flare-ups can look cheap and nasty online, damaging your reputation with customers and employees. It’s like being on CCTV all the time: it’s one of the less appealing aspects of modern life, but it’s here and we’ve got to adapt to it. So it’s worth considering your social media presence if your contacts are active on particular sites.

I’d also encourage entrepreneurs to forget hierarchies when forging relationships. Modern organisations are increasingly flat and collaborative. The best way to communicate with people is through people, so identify the influencers in your business. They can lobby and persuade through force of personality, regardless of where they sit in the company pecking order.

During my time in business I’ve seen many a leader fall down and struggle to get up, often when personal troubles get in the way of professional performance. Leaders are not robots, they are human beings and they can make mistakes, do something inappropriate or exercise poor judgement, just like anyone else. But with the benefit of experience and a good team to keep you on the straight-and-narrow, these failures can be minimised.

So don’t be afraid of being vulnerable – it shows that you’re human. We all screw up on occasion. What matters is that you own up to it. If you don’t know an answer, say so instead of waffling. If, for some reason, you’re not at your best, admit it and explain why.

One of my exec reports was having to leave early to support his wife after the birth of their first child. His team were feeling concerned and insecure about his regular, unplanned disappearances. Almost in tears, he was struggling to keep a brave face when he shared his stress with me.

I told him to share his situation with his reports, who I knew would feel assured and trusted with this sensitive information. When he did, he told me what a great relief it was to feel their support and have it out in the open. He put his hand up and said ‘I need help’ and it came in abundance from colleagues who cared. His honesty won him respect and his team were even tighter than before.

You don’t have to do this every day – and more sensitive issues may be better shared with a mentor or coach who is independent and impartial. But showing your vulnerability is a powerful leadership characteristic. It’s a shame that most entrepreneurs see this as a sign of weakness when it’s actually a sign of strength and inner confidence.

Last, keeping your relationships in good order should be something you build into your weekly diary. Put aside blocks of time for this, as well as for quiet reflection. Make it a routine and you’ll soon see the benefits.

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter was the Editor for from 2012 to 2014, before moving on to Caspian Media Ltd to be Editor of Real Business.

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