Professional Relationships Matter

"It is very helpful as a follower to know that our leader is there for us; if we need to bring a problem to him, we will know that he will be there to help us."
Written by Mitchell Boling on May 15, 2019
Professional Relationships Matter

Professional relationships between leaders and followers definitely matter in the workplaces of today. As leaders, we should always try to get to know our followers. Leaders have the responsibility to create this connection with their followers in a professional manner. Followers need the interaction, as it helps to build trust in the relationship. It is very helpful as a follower to know that our leader is there for us; if we need to bring a problem to him, we will know that he will be there to help us. It is the established relationship that allows this to occur. 

I had a very healthy, five-year professional relationship with a leader who recently retired from the workforce. He was a highly decorated fighter pilot for more than twenty years in the U.S. Air Force. He was supremely experienced, and had taught hundreds of pilots how to employ the F-16 Fighting Falcon over the years. Following his service, he became a senior manager in my company.

It was here where he continued teaching new pilots how to operate the F-16, and eventually, the F-35 Lightning II.  This was when I came to work for him. He was the senior manager, my boss’s boss. He was very open and encouraged dialog with all of the employees who worked for him, for which I admired and respected him greatly. He often welcomed me into his office where we had healthy career discussions, and he genuinely cared for my wellbeing within our company. These conversations were the reasons why I became so comfortable with him, even though he was a well-known rock star of a fighter pilot who still went by his callsign “Skip,” as well as the senior manager of our workplace.

One day he came looking for me. My manager was absent that day, and as the second in charge, I would be the person who Skip would entrust to accomplish an important task.

“Mitch, I’ve got something that I need your help with,” he said.

“Sure, Skip, what can I do for you?”

“I have this tasker that needs to be done ASAP but I have to run off to a meeting.” He continued, “I’m sorry for dumping this on you and leaving, but it can’t be avoided.”

I thought for a moment. “Skip, this sounds a lot like Seagull Management to me.”

“Seagull what?”

“Seagull Management.  You know, when a senior manager comes around, dumps on everyone, and then leaves,” I said.

Skip cocked his head in puzzled thought, and said, “I had never heard of that one before, Mitch.”

“Well, I didn’t just make it up. I learned it in management school. It’s a real thing,” I said with a smile. “Don’t worry, I’ll get right on it and let you know when I’m done.”

We both laughed, and Skip walked away shaking his head as he was off to his meeting. I began working the issue, and after an hour, my cell phone rang. The display showed me that it was Skip, and I immediately answered the phone.

“Mitch, this is SEAGULL ONE, checking in,” Skip said to me. He obviously had been thinking about what I had said.

“Hi Skip, I was just finishing up,” I reported back with a laugh. The task completed, both Skip and I shared the laugh about seagull management, and he thanked me for completing the task so quickly. He said he knew that he could count on me.

I shared this story because I wanted to illustrate how I had become comfortable interacting with a senior leader. It was due to the professional relationship that we had built over the years, and that we were able to laugh a little bit while still getting an important job done. When I made the comment about Seagull Management, I was not saying it with any malice or disrespect; rather I was ribbing him for having to drop the task onto me. He and I both understood what was at stake and knew that I would not let him down. Our relationship helped to make that happen.

I learned about the importance of making professional relationships while in the Air Force. I had been a senior enlisted leader myself, and liked to get out from behind my desk to interact with the Airmen who worked for me.

In my book, Leadership: A View from the Middle, I wrote about how relationships matter in the grand scheme of things. One of the key thoughts on this is something called Leadership by Walking Around, or LBWA. This is when the leader gets out from behind his desk and walks around the workplace, getting to know his followers.

As the Lead Production Superintendent in a fighter squadron, I was responsible for orchestrating the launch, recovery and ongoing maintenance of twenty-eight F-16 aircraft. One day, I went out to the flight line to do some LBWA. I asked the expediter to assign me to launch assist an aircraft, because I wanted to show the Airmen that I could do the job too. I wasn’t just a supervisor, but an aircraft maintainer! It turned out to be a resounding success; in fact, once the word spread that I was out there with them launching an aircraft, a crowd had gathered. The whole crew watched with interest to see if I remembered how to do their job. Of course, I did and the results of my experiment were very positive.

I had demonstrated the importance of professional relationships between a leader and his followers. Once I performed the task of launching the aircraft, many of the younger Airmen were more apt to sit and discuss their thoughts with me. They were more apt to allow me into their fold, which was exactly my aim. To establish that type of rapport helps organizations to grow and become healthier. This was all due to the professional relationships that I pursued with them.

What this all boils down to is that it is very important to the health of the organization, as well as the health of the individual, to cultivate professional relationships between leaders and followers. Whether we need to get something off of our chest, collaborate on a project, or discuss our career development, it is extremely important that we have these types of relationships in the workforce today. This goes to the follower as well as the leader.

As a follower, I felt comfortable joking around with Skip, mutually knowing all along that I would put every effort into completing the task that he had assigned to me. As a leader on the flight line, I needed to show that the Airmen could trust me and hopefully, allow me into their fold. Professional relationships between leaders and followers definitely matter in the workplaces of today. It just makes good sense, and promotes the wellbeing of both the organization and its individuals as well.


Photo provided by Mitchell Boling