Culture | December 20, 2011
a little help from friends: why personal relationships can make a professional difference
“Do you have a best friend at work?” I was asked the same question every year as part of a former employer’s annual employee satisfaction survey. The question has remained in the back of my mind as I have moved from one job to the next. But now, it’s not really a question. It’s transformed into a key piece of advice for me, reminding me that it’s important to have a best friend on the job.
The reason? When I worked for that former employer, I did have a best friend at work, someone who helped me stay productive and positive in a very stressful industry—broadcast television news. Recognition doesn’t come often in this field, mainly due to the ever-increasing demand for new content. In fact, journalists often say “no news is good news”—meaning you usually don’t hear anything about your work unless you’re in trouble.
So, the relationships I shared with colleagues made work worthwhile, and my best friend made it rewarding. The right friendship can have that kind of an impact. It inspires, motivates, and challenges. It can help create a vibrant corporate culture. It can lead to great work, and when I look back on that friendship, I’m grateful and credit it with teaching me a lot early in my career.
I learned friendship can serve as a great check and balance in the workplace. Everyone needs a sounding board, a person they can trust to discuss problems, share ideas, and voice concerns. A unique level of honesty exists within this type of trust. Just ask Harold Matson, Elliot Handler and Ruth Handler. The trio started an iconic, global brand in a workshop garage in 1945. Harold “Matt” Matson and Elliot Handler were good friends, and decided to use letters from their names for the name of their company, Mattel. Eventually, Matson sold out to his partner and Handler’s wife, Ruth, joined the company. The Handlers learned to rely on one another, honestly share ideas with each other, and in time, the duo took the beginnings started in that garage workshop and made it into a global corporation known for some of the world’s beloved toys, including Barbie and Hot Wheels. (Your children will be particularly grateful for Mattel this year…they’re responsible for one of the must-have toys of the season: Fijit Friends.)
Great friends often share a common cause. Take a look at the founders of Whole Foods Market. John Mackey and Rene Lawson Hardy shared the same, universal goal: to provide consumers with high-quality, organic foods. The duo worked closely together, checking decisions against that goal. By sharing the same vision, a single storefront in Austin, Texas transformed into 300 locations throughout North America and the United Kingdom.
Finally, when workplace friends expand the circle, something powerful happens. If anyone understands the power of relationships and networks, it’s one of LinkedIn’s founders, Reid Hoffman. The professional social networking site launched from Hoffman’s living room with five people in May 2003. Hoffman grew the enterprise, steadily expanding it to include more members and employees. Nearly 1,800 people now work for LinkedIn and the site boasts more than 130 million members worldwide.
While working with friends can be a risk, the payoffs can be huge. Workplace friendships can spark innovation, cultivate stronger teamwork and improve morale. In many cases, these relationships outlast the jobs that first brought people together. Mine certainly did. It’s made me a better employee and more importantly, a better person.
Do you have a best friend at work? What has that relationship meant to you?