The Latest Executive Dustups Prove Relationships, Not Skills, Determine Success

Jill Abramson listens during a panel discussion at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida on Aug. 26, 2012 Photograph by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The media firestorm over Jill Ambramson’s firing from the New York Times mostly ignores a simple but crucial lesson for people at any organizational level: Critical relationships have to work.

You have to make them work, not only to get things done in the web of interdependencies that characterize most jobs, but also to keep your position. Leaders need support—from their subordinates, customers, and most importantly, their bosses. When that support vanishes, so do their careers. This lesson holds true regardless of your job performance and track record.

And everyone, even chief executives and executive editors, has a boss. Insufficient attention to managing relationships with bosses, such as boards of directors, has cost many otherwise talented and successful people their jobs—witness, as one example, last summer’s ousting of Men’s Wearhouse founder and emblematic spokesperson, George Zimmer, from his role as chairman of the board.

Businesses—indeed, all organizations—are first and foremost about relationships. Gary Loveman arrived as chief operating officer at what was then Harrah’s Entertainment in 1998, having been hired by CEO Phil Satre. Loveman, who had come from Harvard Business School, not only had little credibility—as he has noted, being called “professor” in Las Vegas is seldom a compliment—but he also had people in senior roles in the organization who thought they should have the position he now occupied.

There are many natural human responses to such circumstances. One is to ignore your rivals and enemies. Another is to try to show everyone around you how smart you are and how much you deserve the job, in the hope that outstanding job performance will win them over. A third is to try to hire your own team and replace your enemies, a strategy that often can’t be implemented and has its own risks as you bring in other, inexperienced (albeit loyal) people to help you run a complex operation.

And then there is what Loveman did—identify the most critical relationships, those individuals crucial to both your success and the success of the business, and nurture those relationships. This entails asking people’s opinions, even if you don’t think their views are likely to be helpful. It means telling people what you are doing and why—sharing information with them so they never feel left out. Serving relationships means going to visit people in their offices, not yours, and in countless other ways showing others that you value them, their experience, and their expertise.

Making critical relationships work mostly entails two things that executives, particularly senior executives, seem to be particularly bad at doing. First, suppressing your ego sufficiently to bolster the self-esteem of others, and second, putting aside personal likes and dislikes—the relationship has to succeed regardless of what you think of the person.

There are clearly many dimensions to the Abramson story—a particular management style that may not be as well tolerated in a woman, lower pay compared with her male predecessor, internal rivalries, disagreements about hiring and strategy—but in the end, career disasters or survival mostly revolve around ensuring that critical relationships work and that you have the support of those around you, particularly, and most importantly, your boss (or bosses).

Working on relationships with people you may not like or even respect is difficult work, which is precisely why executive tenure is often so short. After a while, people forget how tenuous everyone’s hold on power is and get tired of the important but often mundane tasks of serving critical relationships.

The lesson: Each day figure out who is crucial for the success of you and your initiatives. Ascertain the agendas and personal predilections of the most important people in your part of the business. Then work tirelessly on those relationships. You and your projects will have a much greater chance of success.

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