Developing Relationships Is Important Work: It Supports All the Other Work

The Boreas Leadership Program hosts regular social events to facilitate connections among students from across campus

The Boreas Leadership Program hosts regular social events to facilitate connections among students from across campus

We were nearly an hour into the first meeting of the Boreas Student Advisory Team, and you might think we hadn’t done much. No data presented. No brainstorming lists created. No reports given. No decisions made. But I was very pleased with what was happening.

I run the Institute on the Environment’s Boreas Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota. Boreas works with graduate and professional students on developing leadership skills, networks and practices to change the world. Each year we form a student advisory team to help improve our programming.

Sharing stories

Back to the first meeting of the Student Advisory Team. We were taking the time for each person to tell her story, and we all listened. There were no surreptitious glances at smart phone screens around the table. Several months later I can remember most of the stories. We heard stories from a policy student back in school to figure out next steps after years spent working with HIV-affected teens in Kenya and a PhD ecology student who lobbied on federal climate legislation before starting graduate school to pursue her love of research. A horticulture student I’ve known for a couple years confirmed his dreams of running a sustainable farm, but surprised me with something I’d not heard before: the story of his overseas military service. Each person took 5 or 6 minutes to share his life story and his hopes for future career and impact. It took about an hour.

I’d set up this part of the meeting with a simple idea. Relationship before task. I explained that in work situations, including academia, we often want to jump right into the task at hand, trying to make progress quickly. We forget that great work, transformational work, takes more than jumping into action. To do the work that needs to be done, especially hard work like moving toward a more sustainable society, will take great leadership. Great leadership is hard, but it’s made easier when leaders have the kinds of relationships that offer both support and well-meaning accountability. After explaining my reasoning for starting our work together by having us share our stories, I modeled that process by sharing my own life story. And I was pleased as others followed my example.

Building relationships in a climate network

I got the idea of “relationship before task” from my time with a group of people called the Young Climate Leaders Network. This group is an informal network of climate leaders who help make progress toward climate solutions, from starting an innovative solar business, to getting elected or running far-reaching issues campaigns. We were brought together for three retreats over the course of year in order to facilitate relationships and the development of game-changing strategies.

At the first meeting, our professional facilitator reiterated the idea of “relationship before task” again and again, posting it in our meeting space and structuring nearly the entire agenda for the first three-day retreat around building relationships. When you have a bunch of people who want to get things done, it can be hard to remember that relationships of deep support and compassionate accountability will ultimately facilitate better leadership in all of us. However, we all reflected on the idea that this focus on relationships mattered in our work as a network and as individuals. I expect experiences in the Leopold Leadership Program are similar.

Seeing results with graduate students

The story of how we began our work in the Boreas Student Advisory Team this year may not sound like much, but I’ve found it to be amazingly helpful for creating strong team dynamics that allow us to work effectively together. The team socializes with each other and holds each other accountable for showing up for different parts of the programming. We’ve already made progress on a community-building idea called the Boreas Booyah!, and I’m excited to see how it develops.

“Relationship before task” is a simple three-word mantra I use to slow down and be intentional about understanding where each student is coming from and where she is hoping to go. I’ve used it as a focus in creating conditions in the Boreas program in which students can develop their own supportive culture, a culture I believe will promote individual and collective leadership development. I expect it could be used in developing lab cultures as well as productive relationships within wider professional networks.

As we transition into a new year and a new semester, there will be many tasks at hand. We’ve also just come through a season in which we focus on relationships with family and friends. Perhaps this year it will be useful to bring some of that relationship focus alongside our focus on tasks and see what kind of transformations we can create.

What’s working for you in building relationships with others who are working on change initiatives? Leave a comment.

Kate Knuth, Program Director of the Boreas Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, served three terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives. She is pursuing a PhD in conservation biology. You can follow the Boreas Leadership Program and Kate on Twitter, @BoreasIonE and @KateKnuth.