Building strong relationships at work
Why I learned how to play fantasy football
Hi there, Helen here with the new installment of Mind the Beet. This week, I’m talking about building strong connections at work, which is something that gives me a tremendous amount of joy.
For as long as I can remember, I have valued getting to know people and making connections. I am one of the few people (and my coworkers make light fun of me for it) who enjoys ice breakers, team-building events, watercoolers, and coffee chats. Not surprisingly, a lot of this was solidified in me during my formative years as a political consultant and a campaign manager.
It was during my political days when I learned the art and value of relationships. Even in the most by design divisive environements, I saw first hand how listening to each other and seeking to understand makes it possible to reach a positive outcome.
I left the political arena 15 years ago, but the lessons I learned during that time are ones I come back to time and time again.
🏈 Find common ground and embrace your shared humanity
When I worked in politics in early 2000s, I was surrounded by mostly older American white men of various economic and educational backgrounds. I had no kids, no permanent home, no real hobbies yet, but lots of ideas, hopes and dreams of how I was going to achieve success. Luckily for me, my team at work was setting up a Fantasy Football league that year – I did not know the first thing about football, but I knew that I needed common ground in the office. So I leaned in and joined my first league (Soviet Mafia is still my frequent Fantasy handle). I ended up having a bunch of fun doing it and it was a good conversation starter for many conference calls.
Building meaningful connections takes time and trust. I have learned firsthand that it is not a far jump from discussing an injured football player to learning about your co-worker’s real lives (the joy and the sadness). Years later, I still always accept an invitation to a Fantasy league, but now I am also inviting people to join me where I am (I started a company-wide Slack channel to talk about cake, which I am thoroughly enjoying).
Now that I am in a different phase of life, and often times in the position of “power” of being the more senior member of the team, I try to talk to people about things that interest them and really learn about my colleagues. Whether it’s talking to a young mother about returning to work and the challenges of finding childcare or about moving to a new place/new city – being genuinely curious about coworkers has led to deeper connections. And you really never know what the person is carrying behind their smile or grumpiness on any given day.
🏆 Keep your eye on the prize
During the 2008 Presidential Primary I was staffing the late Senator John McCain on a trip he had out in California. I arranged a volunteer to drive the Senator to and from his events in Southern California while I was running around and doing other key event logistics with the press. The volunteer driver with the Senator got lost on his way to the press conference in downtown LA among the endless one way streets. Senator McCain got out of the car and walked the three blocks in the 100 degree LA heat because he needed to get to the press event and at that point, the how did not really matter.
I think about that often - in tough situations, focus on the end goal. If I’m walking into a meeting, I think about what outcome is needed to move the business/situation forward. This usually results in me thinking deeply first, then seeking alignment and understanding. If I haven’t had time to process what the end goal is, it becomes really easy to get tripped up in the minutia.
🎬 Have a bias for action
I was working on a mailer for a candidate (one of those sign-up to volunteer forms) and I needed to send it to print. I delayed the send because even though I had it proofread, and reviewed, I wanted my manager to sign off on it just in case I got something wrong. I emailed and called him, but couldn’t get him so I stalled. When we retro’ed this in our next 1:1, his advice to me was that if you’ve communicated what you plan to do, have gut-checked this decision with at least one other person you trust, you move ahead. If you made the wrong judgement call, ask for forgiveness later, but inaction is unacceptable.
Over the years, I have really seen that people gravitate toward those who are able to gather input, follow up and move forward with a decision rather than being paralyzed by indecision. Whether it is to clarify the goal, identify blockers, or follow up on what we all agreed to do, I am known as someone who relentlessly executes. People gravitate toward doers.
🤝 Be humble and reflect on your privilege (aka don’t be mean or rude to people)
When I worked on Senator John McCain’s presidential primary campaign in California (2008), I was tasked with coming up with a delegate list for the national convention. Senator McCain was an underdog in the Republican primary so no one would give me the time of day or even really want to be on the list of potential delegates because they were all busy getting on Mitt Romney or Rudy Guiliani's list. As it turned out, Senator McCain did become the nominee and my phone was ringing off the hook from all the people who now wanted to be on the list and considered the day after the primary. The tables had turned and I was in the position of power and it was on me to be gracious, humble and helpful to potential delegates.
When working with others, it is critical to recognize when I am in a position of authority and act accordingly. Privilege comes in many forms – one can be privileged because of tenure on the team, domain expertise, historical knowledge, seniority/position in the organization, existing relationships and reputation, size of a team, and so on. Having awareness of where you are vs. where your coworker is, helps you approach every situation with due respect and patience.
Summing it up
At the end of the day, we are all just people - with parents, siblings, friends, good days and bad days, ambitions, and heartbreaks. The biggest unlock for me has been to be curious about people I meet, focus on the end goal, and be nice to people.