How to Build Relationships as an Executive


Human beings are wired for relationships. Executive positions make having them hard.

That’s because, for executives, true peers are hard to find. So, any potential relationships are tinged with elements of positional influence.

It’s hard to be friends with the board when they’re the ones responsible for reviewing your job performance. It’s hard to be friends with a direct report when their career is dependent on their ability to impress you.

And it’s hard not to have friends.

In fact, a broad array of research shows that friendship in the workplace is one of the biggest contributors to both job satisfaction and performance. So, the question is: how can executives build relationships when the top is so lonely?

 It takes intentionality, but it can be done. Here are a few practical tips to help.

Find an outside peer group.

Having peers is essential to having relationships. As a top-level executive, if you want to find a peer group, you’ll generally need to go outside of the organizational context. This takes intentionality, but it’s worth it.

Look for groups of individuals in positions that are similar to yours. There are a variety of CEO-roundtable-type groups that can offer support, from Young Presidents Organization to local leadership cohorts.

As long as the members don’t have a vested stake in your organization, they’ll be able to offer objective perspectives – and even, potentially, friendships that aren’t influenced by your company’s politics.

Pursue board relationships.

Outside peers are important, but without internal support, the job is still difficult to sustain. Enter board member relationships. 

You won’t be able to build meaningful relationships with everyone on the board – and that’s okay. There are some board members that view their relationship with executives through the strict lens of company function and oversight. Relationships won’t happen in that context.

But there are some board members who may also be inclined to help mentor executives. Be intentional about seeking these people out. If you develop trust in these relationships, they can be huge resources in helping to navigate cultural nuances and company initiatives.

They won’t be able to fully shed their supervisory roles. But they will be able to make the executive role a little bit less lonely.

Be as open and transparent as possible with reports.

Finally, there’s no getting around it: as an executive you will inevitably have friendships with subordinates. 

Humans are relational. You’ll develop connections, and you’ll naturally come to like some people on a personal level more than others. It’s how people are wired.

So, what’s answer? You can try to wall yourself off from subordinates to preserve your neutrality, but that can lead to a lack of trust and unhealthy isolation. Worse, it can cause obscurity in your communication and leave your reports feeling like they have to read the tea leaves to figure out where you’re at.

Here’s our view: instead of walling off subordinates, executives should seek to be as open and transparent as possible. That means you can have subordinate friendships, but you can’t shift friendships into favoritism.

Let everyone know that your decisions will be made through the filter of what’s best for the organization. Then, make that a reality. Don’t hire, fire, promote, or demote based on relationships. Don’t make decisions based on personal connections. Treat the organization like your baby and prioritize its wellbeing above all else.

Coincidentally, that approach is in the best interest of the people you like, too. If you move subordinates into a position based on favoritism instead of merit, you’ll set them up to fail. 

So, don’t be afraid to be open and transparent; if relationships happen as a result, that’s part of life. Filter decisions through the organization’s wellbeing and you’ll be able to build friendships and trust throughout the company.

Want more support?

Executive positions are hard. We can help.

Executive coaching can’t compensate for a lack of internal relationships, but it can help to give you the tools you need to build healthy relationships in an executive context.

We’ve been there, and we’ve helped executives build connections.

If you’re ready for a new approach, let’s talk.