Thursday, December 15, 2016

Leadership lessons from unusual places: My Little Pony

I'm continuing my recap of leadership lessons from unusual places, from one of my presentations at the Government IT Symposium last week.

In this leadership lesson, we can learn about building relationships from My Little Pony Friendship is Magic. What a wonderful show! It's full of lessons about how to build and maintain relationships. In fact, the whole show is nothing but about how to build and maintain relationships. Because friendship really is magic.

Relationships are the currency to getting things done. Think about how many times you have been stuck on something, and you've needed to call someone for help? As a manager or director, I'm sure you've had to call another work group or another division and say, "I'm having a problem working through X group, can you give me a hand here?" or "I'm trying to do X, but I'm getting stuck, can you help out?" or "Looks like I made a mistake here, can you help me smooth things over?" I think most of us have had conversations like that more than once.

The key in those conversations is relationships. You know someone who can help, and you reach out to them. Because you have an existing relationship with that other person, they feel a connection and are motivated to help. And you can really only ask those favors from people who you know well. You can't ask that of people you don't really know, or people you just met. If someone you don't know just came up to you and asked, "I'm trying to work with this other group, but their manager is stonewalling me, can you help me get around that?" then that would be weird. You don't know the person who is asking the favor, so it's odd that they would ask you for help.

Think about your social network. I like to imagine it like a bullseye target, where the closer you are to the center, the "closer" your relationship to me. The center circle is the "circle of trust," the people you might go to for completely confidential advice. These are the people you might ask for help if you were looking for a new job. The next circle contains those people who would help you with a favor. Outside that is the "parking orbit," people who are not very close to you, but with whom you are friendly; you might see them in the hallway or by the elevator, but not interact with them very much. And if you aren't in any of those circles, I call them "potential new friends," people I haven't met yet.

You can arrange your social network even further. Think of who are your personal friends, versus your friends at work. Who are your mentors, the people you look to for inspiration? And who are your peers, people with whom you interact but who are neither "personal" nor "work" friends?

You need relationships to get things done. Relationships are that important.

But how do you build relationships? Just remember the four I's of relationships:

  1. Initiate
  2. Inquire
  3. Invest
  4. Inspire

Start by meeting a new person, and reaching out to them (Initiate). Start looking for connections by asking questions (Inquire) and getting to know the other person. Over time, as you become closer, you Invest time in your relationship. This builds bonds. Eventually, you may find you can use your relationship to Inspire the other person to do great things.

Let's go to My Little Pony to observe the first two I's of relationships: Initiate and Inquire.

Here, you can see Twilight Sparkle using Initiate ("Hello. My name's Twilight Sparkle") to start the conversation, then Inquire ("What's your name?") to prompt the other person. She also asks follow-up questions to get to know the other person. Despite Fluttershy's introverted tendencies, Twilight Sparkle reaches out to get to know the new pony, making sure she heard the name right, and commenting on Fluttershy's birds in the tree.

Twilight Sparkle only has time for the first two steps. The third step, Invest, will happen over time as Twilight Sparkle continues to renew her friendship with Fluttershy through activities and adventures. That's just part of the show. Over time, Twilight Sparkle can rely on that relationship to inspire Fluttershy to do great things. That's also part of the show.

You can use the same method of Initiate, Inquire, Invest, Inspire to build your own relationship networks. The more people you know, the better you can navigate your organization and get things done. But don't let your relationships grow stale; fins opportunities to renew your friendships. If you call from someone in your relationship network, take a few moments to catch up before getting down to the task at hand. Or simply call or visit that other person, just to say hi and see what's up. These short moments help to build up your relationship currency.

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