How to Turn Professional Connections into Friends

By Kendra E. Davenport, Chief Development Officer, Operation Smile

About a year ago, I hosted did a brown bag lunch discussion with my team on the topic of thinking and acting strategically to reach your personal and professional goals. One of the issues I covered was maximizing the connections you make every day, which demands that you consider all facets of the people you meet, not just the aspect that your initial connection reveals.

This skill comes naturally to some of us, while others need to work at it. It is often referred to as networking, but what I am talking about is deeper than networking.

To me networking is transactional — developing relationships for the purpose of advancing professionally, creating business development opportunities, and meeting like-minded people whose professional experience might intersect with your own. But what I am encouraging requires developing more personal, connected relationships with people that we encounter, so that these relationships truly blur the line between professional and personal.

Finding Common Ground Unexpectedly

I started an executive master’s program last year. Initially, the only thing members of my cohort and I appeared to have in common was that we had enrolled in the same program. Although we all possessed an interest in public policy, we were a very diverse group with little in common that was immediately discernible.

Over time and as each of us revealed more about ourselves to the group — our personal interests outside of school, professional experience, family life, upbringing, religious beliefs, political views and much more — we began to grow closer.

In the past year, I have engaged professionally with several of them, even inviting one to an event that Operation Smile hosted. Another member of my cohort graciously made introductions on behalf of Operation Smile to officials in his country, and another has consulted with my colleagues on how we might improve our operations in his country. I introduced another cohort member to my husband and other professional contacts to stimulate mutual collaboration that, over the course of the past year, have taken hold.

I have become so close to one of them, that he has stayed with me and my family a few times and once COVID-19 abates and global travel is safe again, we plan to visit him in his country.

The mutual benefit of these relations within the cohort is undeniable. As we learn more about one another and aim to find more opportunities to work collaboratively together, I am confident the intersections of interest we identify will continue to grow.

Build Professional Friendships

My relationship with each of these people is evolving and I believe I will continue to find ways of engaging, working and collaborating with them. I respect and like them, have learned from them, and consciously thought about ways I could deepen my relationship with each of them.

Does that make me opportunistic? Not unless I am not giving as much as I am receiving. I prefer to think that I maximize personal connections in ways that help both of us. Intentional, thoughtful interaction leads to productive, innovative, and fulfilling relationships that are more like professional friendships than professional relationships.

I am very aware that the concept of blurring the line between work and personal life makes some people uncomfortable.

I’ve met people who feel that to be successful and safe, you should erect and maintain a wall between your personal life and your work life. In my experience, there is no right or wrong and the beauty of maximizing your connections is that you are in the driver’s seat. You and only you, can determine how much you share about yourself with anyone you meet, regardless of the context or pretenses under which you meet them.

Like Any Skill, It Takes Practice

One thing I am certain of, is forming meaningful relationships requires mutual trust.

I believe you must be willing to be vulnerable and to let people in a little to gain their trust. Again, how far you let them in is entirely up to you.

Perhaps the opportunity arises in a conversation with a colleague for you to mention that you play an instrument — that’s something you choose to reveal about yourself. Maybe once you do, your new acquaintance feels comfortable enough to share that they do as well, and just like that, you have formed a bond.

However small, you now know that you share something in common outside of the work context that brought you together in the first place. The more details you share about who you are, the easier it becomes to identify things you have in common.

Opening up to people increases your vulnerability, but. It is a critical building block in the formation of meaningful relationships.

Why is it important to deepen your relationships with people who populate your professional life? It isn’t, unless you have a desire to advance, to do more, to move up the proverbial work ladder to a better position, to change career paths, learn from those around you, or to simply enjoy your work more. The camaraderie we develop in the workplace is the icing on the cake — it’s what helps make work fun, interesting and fulfilling, as opposed to boring, tedious and unfulfilling.

My dad always told me, “Kendra, you don’t need your work colleagues to like you. You need them to respect you. If you have their respect and you happen to forge relationships with them and become friends, that’s a bonus.” I think aiming for their respect increases your chances that friendship will follow.

Make Mutual Trust the Foundation

The average person spends 90,000 hours at work over their lifetime. That’s about one third of our lives working. Shouldn’t we do everything possible to ensure our work is fulfilling?

By accepting colleagues and work-related acquaintances more holistically and striving to learn more about who they are, we begin the process of deepening our relationships with them and uncovering things we have in common. Understanding our similarities can also help us overcome our differences.

Take for example any department or group of co-workers. Helping them work more seamlessly, encouraging teamwork and collaboration, and developing true esprit de corps demands that mutual trust and respect is present and practiced by all members of the group.

There are lots of ways you can help your team or colleagues maximize their connections at work and outside of work to develop more meaningful, mutually beneficial bonds to make their work more fulfilling.

5 Ways to Encourage Teams to Form Deeper Relationships

  1. Create fun and off beat opportunities for groups to share information about themselves.
  2. Take the time to participate in after-hours group chats. They can be purpose driven or a mixture of shop talk and fun stuff.
  3. Engage team members in contests that require them to share their thoughts to purposely draw them out of their shell and encourage group participation.
  4. Take the time to check in on individual team members virtually, by phone, email or snail mail.
  5. Start meetings by asking each participant to tell the group about one good thing that has happened to them in the past 24 hours — responses may run the gamut, but the exercise will create levity — humor is always a great icebreaker and social lubricant.

Grow Through the Relationships You Develop

Creating more meaningful, multi-faceted work relationships will not only make work more interesting and fulfilling, but it may also help expand your social network as well. I think work-related relationships that develop over time into friendships offer the best of both worlds. It’s those work-friends you call upon for references, to ask advice, to consider partnering, or to get a trusted, objective opinion.

Over more than thirty years, I have developed many of these relationships. As our world gets smaller and smaller, I reach out to and engage these special folks with greater frequency to discuss a work-related matter or to invite them to dinner.

It is these friends I made through work, who teach me, help me grow and give me perspective. I like to think I do the same for them, together maximizing our professional experience in the best of ways and blurring the line between personal and professional.

The next time you’re at a networking event or meeting a new professional contact, I challenge you to find common ground and engage them in a person-to-person conversation.

Kendra Davenport is the Chief Development Officer for Operation Smile and manages global development strategy, brand, marketing and public relations. She previously served as the president of the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation, the vice president of institutional advancement and external affairs at Africare. Kendra has also supported development at Project HOPE, the Population Reference Bureau, International SeaKeepers Society, First Candle and the SIDS Alliance, and Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and Communications from Chestnut Hill College and is currently working towards an Executive Master of Policy Leadership from Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy. Additionally, she is CFRE International certified as a fundraising executive, and volunteers her skills and expertise to assist the Loudoun County government, Leadership Roundtable and Georgetown University.

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