How Great Leaders Build Strong Relationships

Mark Farrer-Brown
Mark’s Scale Up Essays
8 min readMay 29, 2021

Popular opinion is that leaders don’t have time for developing relationships, for the soft interpersonal stuff. Wrong. Great leaders appreciate that strong relationships are fundamental to their success.

Relationships matter to them because they know that when there is a sense of safety and honesty with their team members, the opportunities for growth are endless; more innovation, more engagement, more fun and a more successful business.

Relationships have to be worked on and that has probably become even clearer to many of us over the last 12 months. We can’t rely on bumping into people at the water cooler or at the pub anymore. If we want to build those relationships at work we have to be much more conscious and deliberate.

What are the characteristics of an exceptional relationship?

Not all relationships can be or need to be exceptional at work but nonetheless knowing what good looks like is really helpful. When I think of my best relationship (oh yes, it’s with you!) I think it has the following qualities:

  1. I can be myself and so can you
  2. You are happy to be vulnerable and trust it won’t be used against you
  3. You can be honest and open with each other
  4. You can handle conflict and are not (too!) afraid to have tough conversations
  5. You are both committed to each other’s growth and development

What does your best relationship look like?

I have set out below six behaviours great leaders use to help them build strong relationships

1. Imaginatively Add Value

Most relationships are transactional. We go to the shop, we buy some bread, we say hello and thank you and we go back to our home office. This approach saves time and is efficient.

But the relationships which are rich and deep are the ones where each party invests in the relationship when they don’t have to when no benefit or transaction exists.

I recently caught up with a lawyer contact, a person whom I don’t know well but I like him and I know he is a great lawyer through my network. In our discussion I asked him “How can I help you?”. He almost fell off his chair. “No one has ever asked me that question before!” he replied. I want to develop that relationship more deeply and I have made a couple of introductions which I am hoping become very productive for him. I am not expecting anything in return.

We invest in relationships by adding value to the other person. So rather than thinking about what you can get out of a relationship, spend time figuring out how you can add value. The more imaginative you can be about adding value the more the relationship will prosper.

You might add value through deep listening, celebrating success, make a film recommendation, words of encouragement, insight, invitation, making an introduction, humour, mentoring and the list goes on.

Add value consistently and imaginatively and you will see the relationship prosper.

2. Develop Your Conversational Intelligence

Few leaders understand how vital conversation is to the health of their company culture and ultimately their company’s success.

It is through conversations that we connect and communicate. Conversations impact the way we engage, interact and influence others enabling us to get on the same page with our team members and create wonderful outcomes through collaboration.

When we communicate with someone we essentially feel good or bad. When we feel good the happy neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin are released along with the bonding hormone, oxytocin. This cocktail of chemicals and hormones leads to a sense of trust, fairness and cooperation.

An unhealthy conversation can trigger cortisol, the fear hormone, which has a 26-hour shelf life. And if you continue to ruminate about the bad conversation this can trigger more fear which can extend the agitation for days, months or years.

So next time you have an important conversation ask yourself whether you are sending out friend messages — “You can trust me to have your best interests at heart” — or foe messages — “I want to persuade you to think about this my way.”

Choose your words carefully as they carry more meaning for the listener than the speaker. Words either cause trust and rapport or distrust and a closed-mind.

Mastering our moment of contact is the art of great leadership” wrote Judith Glazer in Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results.

3. Stop Trying To Be Right

Most people like to be right. The ego believes that if it is not right, it will not survive. The higher the stakes the more the perceived threat rises and the more the ego will try to survive by being right.

Some leaders can work very hard at trying to prove they are right. They unconsciously hold onto their beliefs, find evidence to back up their ideas, and try to prove their intellect to dismiss any counter arguments — a trap many smart people fall into.

But being right has some heavy consequences. Having to be right kills curiosity, prevents dialogue, disempowers your team members, disconnects you from others, damages relationships and can be emotionally exhausting.

Your identity can get so wrapped up in being right and finding the best outcomes for yourself that you become blind to finding the best outcome possible.

So remember there are very few black and white answers, life is all shades of grey and reality lies on a continuum, keep your mind open, hold onto your ideas lightly, stop caring about who gets the credit and start caring about finding the best possible solution for your relationship, for your business or for your community.

4. Follow Newton’s Third Law of Motion

“For every action there will always be an equal and opposite reaction.”

Newton’s law states that for every force exerted by object A on object B, there is an equal but opposite force exerted by object B on object A. It is not possible for one object to exert a force on another object without experiencing a reciprocal force.

So what has this got to with relationships? Well as Peter Kaufman, the editor of Poor Charlie’s Almanak, said Every interaction you have with another human being is mirrored reciprocation.

Let me give you Kaufman’s example to explain this idea.

You are standing in front of a lift (made by my favourite lift manufacturer, Otis). The doors open. Inside the lift is one person, who you have never met before. You walk into the lift. You have three choices. Choice number one is that you smile and say good morning. In most cases, let’s say 95% (ok maybe not in a big city like London!), the stranger will smile and say good morning back. Choice number two: you can walk in, and look grumpily at the other person in the lift. They have no idea why you are scowling at them. I would say 95% of the time, they will scowl back at you or at least give you a ‘what’s your problem’ look. And then choice number three: you do nothing. What will you get back? Nothing. So all this is mirrored reciprocation.

Reciprocation teaches us that when we go first and go positive the chances are we will get something positive back. And if we give someone aggression or unfriendliness or cynicism that is what we will get back in return.

Reciprocity teaches us to be mindful of our actions because what we tend to give out is what tends to come back. So take the risk of 5% not returning the favour otherwise you will miss out on the other 95% who do.

5. When Someone Bids For Your Attention Turn Towards Them

We all know how frustrating it is when you don’t get someone’s attention e.g. they check out a notification on their phone or they are sporadically looking over your shoulder to talk to someone more interesting!

We also all know how wonderful it feels when someone gives us their undivided attention.

How often do you have a conversation with someone where that happens? I would suggest the answer is not very often.

There’s a reason we call it “paying attention” because our time and focus has value but not paying attention or being distracted has a significant adverse effect on relationships.

The most successful relationships according to the psychological researcher, Dr John Gottman, are the ones where bids to attract attention are met with interest and enthusiasm. Happy couples turn towards each other twenty times more than unhappy ones.

We all have the same needs, we all want to be heard, to be loved, to be appreciated.

So, next time a colleague makes a bid for your attention, think twice about ignoring them or letting your notifications distract you. If you don’t turn towards them, the message you’ll be giving out is that you don’t care enough to pay attention to them. They will question whether you got the message in the first place and might also feel ignored, neglected or unheard.

6. Disagree Agreeably Through Learning

In many ways those difficult conversations are the relationship. If we carry them out correctly, this will make the relationships stronger, but if we handle them badly this will make it weaker.

Tricky conversations are a normal part of life but unfortunately when the stakes are high, most of the time we disagree in very disagreeable ways.

There is an alternative. We can learn to get better at handling those difficult and emotional conversations. The rewards are massive. And when you do, you will stop avoiding them, your confidence in handling tough situations will grow, and your relationships will strengthen.

The big idea is to shift away from merely delivering a message or seeking to change someone, to learning. By switching your purpose to learning, to being curious, to asking questions, you will understand the other person’s point of view, you will share each other’s feelings and context, and you will work together to find a solution.

So next time you become mindful that you are in a difficult conversation switch from message delivery mode to learning mode.


One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a leader is to assume a relationship will be easy or stay strong without much effort. Not true. They require commitment and effort.

Your legacy as a leader will be expressed through the people and the relationships you form with them.

Great relationships will help your business succeed but it’s the fact you matter to people and the impact you have on them that will ultimately be the biggest success story in your life.

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About me

Hi, I’m Mark, I help accelerate the development of Founders into CEOs through coaching and mentoring. I have been there and done the entrepreneurial journey from all perspectives — as an entrepreneur, director, mentor, coach and investor. I am also a business angel focusing on fast-growing tech businesses in the UK, US and India.

About this publication

The Coach for Entrepreneurs is a series of blog posts covering all the topics which I believe will help entrepreneurs survive and thrive the entrepreneurial journey. Each blog is an extract from The SPARK Newsletter which I publish in full on my website Fit to Lead.

Some of my articles are being read by leaders within the NHS and so I wanted to give a shout-out to the leaders I coach in the NHS and to the wonderful work they and their colleagues are doing!