The Link Between Relationships and Innovation

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The Link Between Relationships and Innovation

How much attention do you give to creating, developing, and maintaining professional relationships—in the context of today’s business environment? If you’re spending all of your time at your desk and shortchanging your networking skills, then you’re missing out on the strategic opportunity to build smart power by connecting with others through relationships. 

But if you’re approaching your networking the way that you’ve always done it, then it may be time for a skills refresh. Relationship-building these days is about much more than simply cultivating good relationships with others. It now encapsulates expanding your collective “think tank” to give you greater leverage and insight when it comes to innovation, knowledge, and relevance in today’s often tumultuous workplace environment and competitive marketplace. 

Good performance is indisputably important, but having a wide range of diverse relationships is the currency that provides greater visibility and helps truly grow your career. Strategic relationships matter where innovation is concerned. The most successful and creative leaders are the ones who invest in mutually supportive relationships. These leaders are known for getting things done not just based on their own personal productivity, but because they have a diverse, influential, and respected network around them, magnifying their innovative potential and output as well as their knowledge base.

With that in mind, here are five steps you can take to update your approach to relationship-building and gain the smart power you need to navigate and succeed in today’s environment:

Build a board of directors. In a world in which relationships are increasingly governed by social media, the default assumption today is that more connections must be better. We believe differently at SHAMBAUGH, however. We advise against focusing only on casting as wide a net as possible when it comes to relationships. Instead, you should ensure that within your circle, you develop a few trusted and supportive relationships. A great way to accomplish this is to form your own “board of directors.” Like a corporate board, your personal board is there to serve as a cabinet of advisors. By assembling such a group, you can avoid headaches and mistakes while becoming connected to a much wider sphere of people than you would have otherwise had access to on your own, thus significantly scaling your innovative potential. 

Become familiar with the unfamiliar. As you think about who to invite to join your board of directors, take a risk and reach out to those who have a different perspective than you, and who will challenge your assumptions while expanding your point of view. Why is the diversity of your relationships so important? Because in order to be an inclusive leader, it’s key to stretch your circle beyond the people who think just like you do. By intentionally supporting a wide range of cognitive diversity, you’ll surround yourself with a group who can not only challenge your views and reveal your biases, but who can also help you become relevant outside of your day to day, tapping into a much larger spectrum of thinking that drives greater creativity and innovation.

Form relationships outside of your day-to-day function/role. While it’s clearly easiest to get to know people directly around you—those who work on your team or in your department—it’s important to avoid working or thinking in a vacuum. As you seek supportive relationships from those who will give you honest and constructive feedback, make a point of connecting to others across your organization and beyond. Learn about the different roles, challenges, and goals that others face. This will help you become an enterprise leader who understands how what you do—and the decisions you make—affect people downstream or upstream.

Think and link. It may be challenging to figure out who belongs on your board, particularly when it comes to individuals outside of your role. Get strategic: think of executives who know others in different spheres than yours, or who work in another sector of the organization. Brainstorm ways to connect with them and determine how you might add value. Explore areas you have in common as a starting point to build a productive partnership. As you reach out to support others, consider offering your services as a mentor or sponsor, as well as identifying people who might be appropriate mentors/sponsors for you.   

Continuously invest in your relationships. Strong strategic relationships don’t develop overnight, and they won’t magically materialize without your hard work and investment in them. Your board of directors and other professional relationships require a commitment of time and energy to grow into valuable relationship currency. In fact, collecting relationships “on paper”—as often happens when you make contacts via social media but then fail to nurture them—are of no value unless you actively invest in them. Keep your inner circle apprised of what you are doing—and prioritize finding ways to bring value to them. Introduce them to people in your network and/or ask about what you can do to return the favor of their participation on your board of directors. 

In SHAMBUAGH’s leadership programs—including our Women in Leadership and Learning (WILL) program—attendees explore and collaborate on what we call “stakeholder management.” This strategic approach guides them in becoming more purposeful in how they go about building and expanding their relationships. Stakeholder management helps you: 

  • Link to ways to become more creative and innovative
  • Expand your individual knowledge base through networking/collaboration
  • Refresh and renew your existing job/role with relationships that connect beyond your day-to-day contacts to reinforce greater value outside of your day-to-day 
  • Expand your strategic business perspective by linking to senior/influential stakeholders 
  • Develop potential connections with sponsors, mentors, and other external relationships that reduce insularity

Are you ready to learn more about stakeholder management and additional ways to upgrade your relationship-building skills to unlock higher levels of engagement, creativity, and innovation throughout your organization? SHAMBAUGH Leadership can help—contact me at

Rebecca Shambaugh is a leadership expert on building inclusive and high performance cultures. She speaks at major conferences and to executives on how to disrupt traditional mindsets and create an inspiring vision and roadmap for driving greater levels of innovation and performance through a unified voice for leadership. Rebecca is the Founder of Women in Leadership and Learning, a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review, and blogger for the Huffington Post. She is author of the best-selling books It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor and Make Room for Her: Why Companies Need an Integrated Leadership Model to Achieve Extraordinary Results

SHAMBAUGH’s Mission: We’re on a mission to develop high-performing and inclusive leaders who transform workplace cultures so everyone can thrive

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