When the Going Gets Rough, Who Can You Call?

It's true: success in business really is about who you know.  As a manager, your relationships within and outside of your organization are a key component of your success.  Before you spend too much of your limited time figuring out how to schmooze all those senior VPs, you might want to think about establishing relationships with people much lower on the totem pole, even lower than you.  

Yes, it's helpful to have senior executives who think highly of you and can help you out, but often the most useful person in a crisis is the secretary (who still uses that title because that's what she was hired as twenty years ago) who knows exactly whom to call to get the critical answer you need for your presentation due in five minutes.  Or that guy in the mail room who can make shipping miracles happen, if he wants to.  And don't forget that woman in IT who can bring computers back from the dead after unfortunate coffee incidents.  

These people may not make or break your career, but they can really save the day sometimes, and it pays to get to know them.  In fact, they might even be able to help you find strategic ways to curry favor with those senior VPs you're after.  

The following is a simple process you can use to establish relationships with key people, well before you need them.

People/departments to establish relationships with

Departments who have people who might be really important in a tough situation:

  • IT (you can never have too many friends at the help desk)
  • Audio-visual, especially if you give presentations on or off site
  • Contracts/procurement
  • Shipping- Support staff for senior executives in your organization
  • Accounting
  • HR, especially recruiting and employee relations

In some cases, organizational politics will dictate that you need to interact with your peers in the targeted departments, not the employees doing the work.  If possible, though, it's best to try to establish a relationship directly with the front line staff.  They are the ones who know how to get things done.  

Process

Regardless of the level of person you're talking with, the process is the same: 

  • Invite them to coffee or lunch (not a meeting) and tell them you'd like to understand how your team can work more effectively with theirs.
  • When you meet, ask them how they work, and ask how you can improve the way your team interacts with and makes requests of them.  This isn't just to be polite: you need to understand how organizational processes operate, and you may very well identify some potential process improvements that will benefit your team, too.
  • Express your respect and appreciation for what they do every time you interact with them, and take advantage of any opportunities to e-mail their boss when they've helped with something.  If you have the opportunity to help them out in some way, even if it's just defending them when your colleagues complain about some bureaucratic hassle, do it.
  • Try to avoid placing any urgent demands on them until you absolutely have to.  Most people treat support staff as if they are servants and every request is the most important, most urgent thing ever.  Give them lead time on requests, convey your understanding of the complexity and quantity of their work, and make sure your team follows your lead on this.
  • When you do have to call on them with an emergency request, fully acknowledge that you are asking (not demanding!) for something above and beyond, and treat them as the expert.  
  • When the crisis is over, make sure you express appreciation in whatever way best fits your organization's culture and the magnitude of the help.

Action steps

  1. Identify one support department whose work your team is currently dependent on or might be in the future.  If you can't think of one, go with IT.  
  2. Select one person in that department whom you could reach out to.  This could be a team lead or a front-line employee, and it could be someone you already know.
  3. E-mail that person and ask if they can get together for coffee.  
  4. Meet with them, and start forming the relationship.   


That's it: five minutes to write the e-mail and an hour or less for coffee, and you may have formed a strategic partnership that will make all the difference for you and your team one day in the not-so-distant future. And let's face it, this person is probably going to be more fun to meet with than a senior VP anyway.