Building relationships with others is a confusing and ambiguous developmental objective. How often should you be “networking”? What’s the most tactful way to do it? The most effective? This can make the prospect of creating connections a daunting one. But if you’re not actively investing in key relationships, you’re almost certainly missing opportunities to expand your strategic view of your business and marketplace, thus putting you at a disadvantage compared to your well-networked peers and competitors.

The challenge of building relationships is generally tied up in a complex set of other factors that we’re often brought in as coaches to address: interpersonal skills, self-awareness issues, and understanding one’s impact on others all play into this objective.

As a first step to building relationships, many people start by scheduling casual, get-to-know-you meetings or meals. Scheduling time to get together one-on-one or in small groups does increase the likelihood of you spending time with people. But without a purpose, these discussions often fall flat, fail to deliver their intended value, become frequently delayed or rescheduled, and might even be described as “painful” or “dreadful.” There’s definitely a better way to build relationships.

Like any good developmental effort, you should start with a clear goal and strategy in mind. Putting a plan together to develop relationships can be hard. It may feel like real connections should happen naturally, unintentionally, throughout our lives; strategically planning to create them may seem disingenuous. What people fail to recognize is that our lifelong approach to building relationships is typically based on convenience or shared interest—which is far from strategic. The same approach that worked on the playground will not necessarily work in the boardroom. Cultivating strategic relationships that bring real business value (and hopefully, personal enjoyment at work) should be a more planful, deliberate effort. And it needn’t be viewed in a negative light just because it doesn’t happen “naturally” – these relationships are real, with give-and-take and benefits for both parties.

To be more strategic and deliberate about building relationships, consider adding these actions to your development plan:

Critically evaluate your network and identify relationships to invest in.

This should be your first step, and what you create here should become a resource you keep returning to as you progress in this skill. Make a list of your work-related relationships, starting with the strongest connections. Then evaluate how you support one another. Who are your advocates and champions? Who are your acquaintances? Who simply knows of you? Then, think about key gaps in your network. Do you have champions in related departments and functions? Do key customer and leadership groups know of you? Evaluate for missing holes, and then prioritize which relationships you would like to create and which you would like to strengthen. Think about who in your network can introduce you to people you do not already know.

Set specific goals and objectives for how each focal relationship can help you.

Research shows that creating specific and measurable goals increases our likelihood of achieving them. Why approach relationships any differently? Goals will help you set yourself up for success. For example, you may have identified a peer who never sees eye-to-eye with you, and your failure to enroll her in your shared vision has squashed some of your initiatives. The goal, in this case, is not to get to know this peer. The goal is to understand her priorities, motivations, and thought patterns to turn her into a champion for your ideas instead of a dissenter.

Consider what type of engagement with the person will best align with your goals.

This is where the typical quarterly lunch goes off the rails. Consider our dissenting peer example from above. Is the best way to build a solid relationship with this person that meets your relational goals really to engage in small talk over lunch? It is unlikely you’ll gain in-depth knowledge of her thinking style as you talk about weekends, hobbies, and families. Instead, find or create forums for sharing ideas and problem-solving. Proactively seek out her input into your problem-solving and decision-making. Create a peer council where you meet quarterly to share strategic ideas and industry trends. Find out what challenges this person is experiencing and offer support. These interactions are more likely to help you turn your colleague into an advocate.

Become an excellent listener.

It is hard to get to know how someone ticks without intently listening to them. And yet humans are notoriously bad at listening. We tend to just wait patiently for our turn to speak instead of hearing what the other person is saying. Asking good questions is a key component to making others feel heard, and it will also give you a better chance of learning what you need to know about them to meet your goal. For a great resource I use myself, see Edgar Schein’s classic book, Humble Inquiry.

Track progress and test yourself.

Periodically return to your list of relationships and goals to see where you need to make adjustments. For all key relationships you should be able to answer the following questions: What is important to them? What frustrates them? When have you been successful at partnering with them or influencing them? When have you been unsuccessful? What are the trends and commonalities? If you cannot answer these questions with confidence, it is time to investigate. Refine your goal and relationship plan to focus on that missing insight.

How do you build strategic relationships? What have been your successes and failures with get-to-know-you meetings? Do you map your relationships and set goals for deepening them? Sound off in the comments.

For more information about workplace relationships and developing new leadership skills, see our other blogs below or reach out to discuss building your own relationship plan.