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Taking an Entrepreneurial Approach to Relationships

By Wendy M. Murphy and Kathy E. Kram

As educators of budding entrepreneurs, we spend a lot of time discussing impersonal topics, such as whether a market is growing and how to start and scale a business. But, we’d like to focus on more personal matters, specifically on the intersection between entrepreneurial thinking and relationships.

In our scholarly work, as well as related research for our new book, we’ve identified four foundational elements that govern an entrepreneurial approach to relationships and developmental networks. Below, we define each approach and then discuss how students (and educators!) may get started putting them into practice.

  1. The first is self-awareness. It comprises knowledge of your personal values, your professional and personal goals, your attitudes and preferences in work and relationships, and your talents, strengths, and weaknesses.
  2. The second is awareness of the career landscape. This includes knowledge of the immediate opportunities for growth and advancement within your organization, as well as keeping tabs on career trends beyond your organization or industry and how these may affect you.
  3. The third is relational mindset and skills. These are the combination of attitudes and relational acumen that enable you to reach out to potential developers and to deepen current relationships.
  4. The final one is selecting potential developers. This is the ability to identify developmental partners who can provide mutual learning opportunities.

Taken together, these principles focus your relationship-building efforts. They also help you hone insightful questions for those whom you decide to enlist in your developmental network. (See Table 1.)

Table 1: Entrepreneurial Approach to Relationships

Knowing Why: Self-Awareness Values
Goals and interests
Talents and skills
Areas for improvement
Knowing Where: Awareness of Career Landscape Research Opportunities Obstacles
Knowing How: Relational Mindset Proactivity
Effective interactions
Social skills
Knowing Who: Potential Developers Senior leaders
Peers
Junior colleagues
Professional associates
Family/friends
Inside/outside work

Knowing Why: How Can I Build Self-Awareness?

Career experts agree that self-awareness is the first building block for a satisfying career and life decisions. It gives you impetus. When you know what’s important (by examining your personal values), self-awareness also reveals a personally meaningful goal. But, in order to course-correct, you need two other things: an accurate sense of your strengths and weaknesses; and an understanding of your “personal genius” (by determining what you love to do and excel at). The resulting self-awareness also generates the confidence that enables you to reach out to others.

Consider the case of two students, Cary and Kelly, who took widely dissimilar approaches to self-awareness. Cary was self-reflective early. In college, he took courses with regular reflective practices. They required him to keep weekly journals. In them, he’d write about how concepts that he was learning about in class might be applied broadly.

Kelly, by contrast, took a number of specialized marketing research courses. True, they equipped him to land his first job, and it was a good one. But, he was unaware that knowing himself deeply would be an important element in his career advancement.

Make Time for Reflection

You don’t need a college course to develop self-awareness. But, Kelly should have learned that regular reflection on your experiences, in and out of work, provides clarity; it offers unclouded insight into your preferences, your personal values, your interests and talents, and, ultimately, your personal goals. All must be crystal clear in order for you to make the right next step in your journey.

This doesn’t just happen. You have to make time for it. And, to use those minutes and hours efficiently, we suggest employing several well-tested tools. Among these are journaling, pausing to reflect during and after meaningful conversations, reviewing performance feedback carefully, and soliciting feedback from supervisors and others. A variety of assessment tools also are available through your organization and online.

Try Journalizing or Blogging

The technique of journalizing is frequently used in schools, executive programs, and by individuals. Some discover its value in a classroom setting, working with a career counselor, through professional associations, a self-help book, or an online resource.

In some industries, it’s also quite common for individuals to use blogging or social media to gather feedback on their ideas and reflections. Less personal than journaling, these electronic tools do provide input from others who share interests and values. Common to all methods is a set of guiding questions:

  • What happened? Write a brief (three to four sentences) description of events that occurred.
  • How did you feel? What did you think?
  • What did you learn from the experience?
  • How can you use what you’ve learned in the future?
  • What actions will this lead you to take in the future?

Capture Your Experience for Future Reflection

The purpose of structured reflection is to sharpen your self-analytical skills. Opportunities can arise in many ways—a conversation with your boss, a disagreement with a co-worker, a mistake at work, a difficult conversation with your partner, or a recognized accomplishment.

The trick is to capture the experience on paper (or virtually) and to reflect on it. That is, use work-based experiences as data for improving your relationships and performance. Then, as you reread your reflections, you’ll discover patterns. These offer insight into what’s important to you and help reveal future directions.

Beyond increasing your self-awareness, structured reflection will provide you with the data you need and uncover questions you want to explore with potential developers. For example, from his start at P&G, Cary found that reflecting on his experiences gave him plenty to talk about with his boss, peers, and selected senior colleagues.

With his boss, he discussed his evolving interests in the job and the company. This elicited conversations about next steps and the skills he should develop. During his third year, he got to know a more senior colleague. Sharing his well-informed reflections on experiences and goals led to an introduction to the person who offered Cary his next position.

Reflect on a Regular Basis

Habitual reflection clarifies your thinking and makes you a better conversationalist. Remember, intelligent conversations, as opposed to work-related chatter, are the starting point for strategic relationships.

No one likes being unprepared, especially when an opportunity arises to talk with a senior executive. What happens in such an interchange if you haven’t already examined your preferences, your interests, your skills, and your goals? Nothing meaningful.

But, if you’ve done at least some reflecting, you’ll be able to do more than stammer. You’ll have informed questions that might set a new relationship in motion.

Reflect on Conversations with Others and Through Assessments

Conversations with people interested in you can enhance your self-awareness.

Most organizations have structured appraisal systems that regularly provide feedback on your performance. Feedback also is available in widely used assessments of your personality style (such as the DiSC or MBTI assessments), your leadership style (such as the LPI), your personal values, your career interests, and current knowledge and skills.

If these are not available through your organization, such self-awareness tools can be found in books and online. All provide a starting point for meaningful conversations. We define these as talks with a boss or other experienced colleague, with friends and family members, or with any developer who also is a good listener and really cares about your personal success and happiness.

Discover Your Passion

The overarching goal of reflection and self-exploration is to discover your “personal genius.” Herb Shepard defines “personal genius” as that which you are passionate about and really enjoy doing. The only way to figure out your personal genius is to observe yourself in action, at work and in life. Take note of the activities that give you positive energy and satisfaction. Then, consider what you enjoy about these activities. Where else, especially in the workplace, might you find work that engages you similarly?

Self-awareness evolves throughout our career journey. Our priorities, goals, and interests are likely to change over time. Therefore, the practices we suggest are relevant not just early in your career. They apply whenever you sense a need to move on, to grow, or to respond to external changes.

That also means that if you’re like Kelly, all is not lost. It’s never too late to reflect, journalize, and avail yourself of assessment tools. In fact, we’ve seen managers and executives discover the value of these practices after 15 or 20 years in the workplace. Sometimes this awareness comes from what’s called “the gift of a crisis.” External conditions related to family, economy, or industry can all be the catalysts that inspire you to reassess your situation at work. In doing so, you’ll be better prepared to move on by engaging others in meaningful, purposeful dialogue.


This article is adapted from the authors’ forthcoming book,
Strategic Relationships at Work: Creating Your Circle of Mentors, Sponsors, and Peers for Success in Business and Life.

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Wendy Murphy

Wendy Marcinkus Murphy is an Associate Professor of Management with teaching responsibilities in organizational behavior for both undergraduates and graduate programs. She also serves as the Faculty Advisor for the Mentoring Programs through the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (CWEL). Prior to joining the faculty at Babson College, she taught at Boston College and Northern Illinois University. She earned her A.B., M.S., and Ph.D. from Boston College.

Murphy has published her research in several academic journals. Her forthcoming book with Kathy Kram, Strategic Relationships at Work: Creating Your Circle of Mentors, Sponsors, and Peers for Success in Business and Life, applies the scholarship of mentoring to a help everyone become an entrepreneurial protégé.

Kathy Kram

Kathy E. Kram is the Shipley Professor in Management at Boston University. Her primary interests are in the areas of adult development, relational learning, mentoring and developmental networks, leadership development, and change processes in organizations. In addition to her book, Mentoring at Work, she has published in a wide range of journals including Organizational Dynamics, Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, and Harvard Business Review.

Strategic Relationships at Work