A key part of your professional development plan should be building strategic professional relationships. If you’re not sure where to start, try the ‘power mapping’ method.
The saying, “It’s not always what you know, but who you know” is a cliché for a reason – it’s true. You can spend years grinding away at work, doing all the professional development courses, fine-tuning your skills and becoming a master in your chosen field, but what gets your foot in the door is often another person.
Strategic relationship-building is an important skill for anyone to master, but it’s especially critical for HR professionals.
“Strong networks are useful for everyone because they expose you to new ideas, ensure other people know who you are and what you’re capable of, and allow you to cultivate allies who can spread the word about you. But they’re especially critical for HR professionals, whose success often depends disproportionately on their ability to influence, rather than directly oversee, a wide range of stakeholders,” says Dorie Clark, Wall Street Journal best-selling author and Executive Education Professor at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business.
“HR professionals know that professional development [and network-building] is important – they are preaching that message every day. But often, because HR folks are generally caring, other-focused individuals, they’re last in line for some of these beneficial activities.”
Citing the work of Marshall Goldsmith and Sally Helgesen, Clark refers to the concept of focusing on your job at the expense of your career.
“You’re so intent on doing a great job for your company that you develop a short-term orientation. You’re doing the work, and that’s great, but you’re not necessarily building the skills or network you need for a successful long-term career. You have to keep your eyes on that prize.”
This is why Clark suggests that HR professionals make strategic relationship-building a key aspect of their professional goal-setting.
This could look like committing one hour each week to having a coffee, lunch or casual catch-up with a different person.
“This is a great way to refresh dormant ties,” she says. “Because it’s really easy to let your professional network get narrow over time.”
This is particularly pertinent considering the rise of remote work in recent years.
“A broad study from Microsoft showed that communication within teams went up during the pandemic, but communication with outsiders went down by about 21 per cent.
“That’s not going to cripple you in the short-term, but if people retain those patterns of communicating 20 per cent less with folks outside their immediate team in the long-term, that means bad things for the state of their network.
“It means you’re not being exposed to new ideas, and you aren’t making new connections or getting more advocates who might go on to talk you up for future opportunities.”
Create your own power map
While ensuring you have a healthy network at work is important, you don’t just want to expand your network for social reasons. If you’re strategic about it, it can pay professional dividends.
“You have to be really thoughtful about your professional network. Now is a great time to reallocate your portfolio of time towards networking.”
“HR professionals know that professional development [and network-building] is important… but they’re often last in line for some of these beneficial activities.” – Dorie Clark
You can make your relationship-building more strategic by planning out the key stakeholders you want to influence, says Clark.
“This is the concept of power mapping, which is commonly used in the world of politics where I used to work.”
Rather than going directly to the person you want to build a relationship with, think about how you can ingratiate yourself with those in their inner circle. This way the relationships you form will be more genuine and, although it might be a bit of a slow burn, you’ll build up trust with the key stakeholder you’re looking to influence.
So what does this look like in practice? Think of it like this:
- Identify the relationships that will further your career.
For example: You are an HR professional looking to influence the board members of your organisation, as you’d like to get their support to further invest in your wellbeing initiatives in 2023.
“The basic idea is that if you want to influence someone, say a senior leader, you need to understand who influences that person. In the corporate world, it might be the senior executive who can approve your budget or support you for a promotion,” says Clark.
- Be curious about who/what influences them.
In most instances, that will be a person/people, such as members of the executive team.
“Do a deep dive into who is whispering in their ear. Who do they trust? It could be a colleague or a direct report of theirs. Make sure you’re in good stead with those people so they know who you are.”
However, it could also be something less tangible, says Clark.
“It could be something abstract, like an industry newsletter they read all the time. Understand the various forces that are shaping them.”
- Start mapping out genuine ways to connect with them.
We’ve underlined ‘genuine’ on purpose. People can generally sniff out if someone has ulterior motives, so make sure you’re taking the time to learn about them and to be reciprocal in your interactions/asks.
It’s okay to be strategic with the people you want to get to know, but it’s not okay to use them and then kick them to the curb once you’re ‘done’ with them. That’s a surefire way to develop a bad reputation.
“Look for opportunities to get in front of the people on your power map,” says Clark. “For example, can you sit next to them at an event? That gives you the opportunity to have more impact and makes it more likely that you’ll get a ‘yes’ out of that key person you want to influence.”
Example of a power map
Download HRM’s printable 2023 professional development template here, which includes Clark’s power mapping model plus more!
Another reason to get these people on side is that it’s rarely just a single person that you need to win over. In a work context, decisions are often made by consensus. So, while the CEO might be the person to sign on the dotted line for your proposal for, say, more funding for your learning and development efforts, they’ll seek the opinions of those in their inner circle to make that decision.
How to be more influential
Now that you know who you want to influence, here are some tips to help you make it happen. AHRI members should keep an eye out for the March 2023 edition of HRM Magazine for a detailed article diving into more tips to make your communication more impactful and persuasive.
- Listen deeply. In an article for Harvard Business Review, Clark says resentment can easily brew when people don’t feel their voices have been heard. With this in mind, give people the opportunity to share their perspectives before pitching them your idea. If people can see a fragment of their own thinking in your end result, they’ll be more likely to take it on board.
Read HRM’s article on the four different types of listening.
- Hone your expertise. If you’re seen as someone who knows their stuff, people are more likely to consider the ideas you’ve put forward, says Clark. While this requires an investment of time and effort, it almost always pays off.
Clark says this could look like attending industry conferences, writing LinkedIn pulse articles about your area of expertise or enrolling in a certification program.
Learn more about AHRI’s HR certification program.
- Take the time to assess your own influence. In a separate HBR article, Vanessa Bohns, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Cornell University, says most people tend to underestimate the influence they have over others.
She says taking 10 minutes each month to analyse an interaction you’ve had (e.g. a meeting or presentation) from the perspective of a neutral third party is a great way to gauge how much of an impact you’ve had. For example, you might ask yourself questions such as: ‘How did the other person react?’ or ‘What was their body language like when I shared my perspective?’
Another thing you could consider is collecting data on how many times your suggestions/presentations etc. result in action. For example, perhaps you’ve suggested a fresh way of approaching company meetings to cut down on wasted time and you create a template for managers to implement. Do a quick assessment of how many people are actually using the template and finding it useful.
This can act as a helpful reminder that your suggestions have impact and can be the motivation boost you need to continue influencing others and building your professional network.
What are your best influencing tips? Let us know in the comment section below.