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The Underrated Art of Building Peer Relationships
As you become more senior in an organization and start to manage organizations of people, your effectiveness (over time) is dependent on your ability to collaborate with and influence your peers.
That conflict of priorities? It’s on you to resolve.
That big idea you have? Rarely something you and your teams can execute alone.
That complaint about how we’re working? Good luck fixing it with just ideas.
Gone are the days of brilliantly working from your own page, or kicking conflict upward when things fall out of alignment.
So it’s probably no surprise that 80% of what I work on (as a coach to startup execs) centers on working effectively with peers. I’ve found that there are a few things that really matter, especially in the early days of a peer relationship, so I thought I’d summarize here.
Three things to focus on when building peer relationships
Thing 1: Work on Something Together
Nothing helps you figure out how to work with someone like… working with someone. Don’t wait for that business-critical priority to pop up. Create some space to wander into a problem together, and test-run your working dynamic on something low-stakes.
Pick something that you can learn together – or a problem you can join forces on solving quickly. Choose something that takes about 2 weeks, end-to-end, to prevent burnout and increase the chance of completion. Nothing overly complex.
Create space for divergence and convergence. Don’t just rush into execution mode – take some time to explore the bounds of what you each know about the opportunity, problem and possible solutions. Try establishing some common ground, kick off a few debates, brainstorm a bit, talk to others and reconvene.
Pick something that is in the white space (not obviously one person’s job) or help your chosen partner with something important on their plate that you are confident you can add value to with little friction.
Get to understand how one another thinks – What do they value? How do they approach problems? How do they communicate? What cool ideas do they have?
Build trust – this is less about proving what you know, and more about showing that you can be a trusted partner. Make and keep commitments to demonstrate accountability. Express yourself freely but show that you’re open to feedback.
Thing 2: Get to Know One Another
Amidst the day-to-day demands of working together, try to spend some time getting to know one another as humans. Find out about hobbies, kids’ names, favorite band. Take notes so that you actually remember! This is not meant to be a surface-level box-checking exercise – it’s an opportunity to really understand more about them, and authentically connect.
Make a long-term investment: Some of my closest professional contacts are peers from former leadership teams. Because we really invested in the relationship, our friendships persist beyond roles or companies.
Tack social rituals on to work things: add the dinner after the offsite, or the coffee before the meeting. Do the quarterly happy hour reunion to get the gang back together. It’s worth it!
Create space for non-work banter: on one of my favorite leadership teams, we’d consume ourselves with travel, grilling and photography just as much as payments, commerce and crypto. Most of this was on Slack and made for a nice break in the day.
Note: This is not a replacement for Thing 1 above – and this cannot be rushed. I think we’ve all been in the situation where rapport-building happens, but trust never forms. I’d attribute this to skipping #1 above, or flubbing it.
Build empathy – The goal here is not to force friendships with every single one of your peers. That would be artificial and exhausting. One ideal outcome you’re hoping for is empathy: understanding of where that other person is coming from, and a bit more about what makes them tick.
Connection – One of my favorite things about being on a team is the shared experience of it: the highs, the lows, the mundane. I’ve found that connection can be cultivated on work-related or non-work related topics – and sometimes there’s crossover in either direction. For example, with one peer, our connection as hip hop lovers helped us break the ice when we were at odds in a debate. With another, our connection as mothers to young children helped us relate to one another during a particularly challenging period.
Thing 3: Have Regular 1:1s
I think of 1:1s as a way to maintain relationships vs build them. With some foundation in place, a 1:1 can be a great forum for checking on and correcting misalignment, resolving conflict, and building understanding.
When there’s a strong interdependence between the functions/teams that I manage, and theirs, I prefer a weekly cadence of 1:1s. When it’s less strong, but we’re on a leadership team together, I prefer bi-weekly (or monthly). In all cases, the frequency can adapt to the need.
Here are my typical focus areas for 1:1s with peers, shown across a spectrum of trust (low-trust conversations require little trust to go well, high-trust requires high trust to go well):
Exchange insight – there’s typically a difference between what you believe happened on a project, and what really happened. This delta tends to be more about interpersonal dynamics, some of which are helpful to understand for the next go-around. With enough trust in place, you can learn more about what’s really happening – both in and around your organization.
Resolve Conflict – when alignment is tested, support is needed, or internal handshakes need to be adapted between two teams, this is typically where it happens. The safety of a 1:1 meeting (and the removal of distraction and other personal dynamics) allows for a higher likelihood that you can both get to the heart of what’s needed, and solve it.
Try to group these – I like to do my 1:1s with direct reports on Tuesday afternoons, and with those as input, I head into 1:1s with peers on Thursdays.
If I plan to present something at our exec staff meeting, I make sure to bring it into a few of my 1:1 meetings with peers the week prior. This preview allows for helpful feedback, questions and importantly, a heads-up (especially critical if there are any areas where I’m depending on the support of others for something to happen). This ultimately strengthens the proposal and increases chances of follow-on impact.
When I start a new 1:1 series, I set the “repeat” duration for 3 months, max. That way, we can naturally re-evaluate the frequency after some time, and prevent the sync from becoming an obligation on either end.
Quick note: An anti-pattern that I typically see with first-time ops people or newer execs is the over-scheduling of 1:1s. This tends to be in service of making sure they stay on top of everything. Aside from over-running your calendar and eating into work time, this tends to lead to burnout. Find other ways to get information (ie. what’s happening, when, how’s it going) – and instead, rely on 1:1s for real insight and alignment.
Why this matters
A foundation of mutual respect and understanding is key in working well together. On any leadership team, you’re bound to face tricky, and sometimes excruciatingly painful times — and its in those moments that you’ll be thankful that you invested in your peer relationships.
Question for you:
How do you go about building strong relationships with peers on your leadership team? I’d love to hear from you!
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