Leading Blog


Are Relationships Your Top Work Priority? Here’s Why They Should Be

Positive Communication

IT’S AN AMAZING FEELING: When you walk into Rob Ulmer’s office, he instantly lets go of whatever he’s doing. He turns to you with a warm greeting and gives you his undivided attention.

As colleagues who worked under Rob’s leadership for years, we can’t recall a single instance when we felt pushed out, nudged to leave, or disengaged. Rob simply gives you his full self. He’s a master at creating high-quality moments for his people.

Today, Robert Ulmer is dean of the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). Originally from Canada, Rob is a leader who brings enthusiasm, positivity, and a total commitment to people—all day, every day. We interviewed him recently for our book, Positive Communication for Leaders, to understand how he does it.

“As a leader, I have to be sensitive to the human equation,” Rob explained on a Zoom call. “People really do matter to me,” he added. “You’re hiring people, and you have to give them time and attention. You have to be interested in who they are and what they’re about. You have to care.”

“People signal to you whether you matter or not, whether they’re more interested in you or more interested in themselves,” he explained. He briefly paused and added: “I know what that feeling is like when people don’t care about you, and I don’t want [anyone I work with] to have that feeling.”

“The default for most people,” Rob continued, “is to be impersonal. Many people will treat others transactionally. It’s very easy to focus on the role and the position. Everybody will tell you that you can’t take the time to spend with people, that it’s about something else.”

He paused for clarity. “That’s all nonsense,” he said as he shook his head. “Investing in relationships can be done at all leadership levels.”

In the interview, we stepped in and played devil’s advocate. We argued that most people would say, “I can’t do that all the time. I’ve got emails to attend to, another meeting to go to.” What about all the things that could take a person away from the encounter?

Rob responded, “Out of all the things you’ve mentioned, what could be more important than the person you have with you in that moment?”

Relationships Should Be a Leader’s Top Priority

Rob’s rhetorical question reveals the mindset that drives his approach to work. As he put it in the interview: “Relationships are the most important priority.” There’s nothing above that.

From Rob’s vantage point, there’s no internal leadership conflict about his priorities. He’s living his principles. “I’m not using a focus on relationships as a way to get to some other outcome,” Rob concluded. “The end outcome is the relationship.”

With this philosophy in mind, Rob makes lots of small and big decisions that bring this philosophy to life. At one point in the conversation, he reflected, “Sure, we have a whole bunch of problems today. We’ll have them tomorrow. I don’t go to work with the expectation that I’m going to have a perfect day. So, when I’m talking to people, I go in and have those meaningful conversations for as long as it takes. Those other extraneous issues don’t really matter. What gets us where we’re going is the relationships that we’re developing.”

What can you do today to build on Rob’s approach and create quality moments with others? Here are some easy-to-do strategies you can implement today:

  • Control your calendar. It’s tempting to let someone else manage your time. “Most bosses aren’t in charge of their calendars, but I am,” Rob noted during our interview. Rob’s advice? Take control of your meetings, don’t let people populate your calendar, and leave significant time to meet with people.
  • Say “no” to nonstop meetings. Forget back-to-back meetings. As Rob says, “I schedule meetings with space and latitude so I can spend time with people.”
  • Visit people in person. How many people are you connecting with as you sit behind your desk? Instead, take a page from Rob’s book. “I’m out of my office and going to other people’s offices daily. If somebody comes to see me and I’m not available,” Rob explained, “I’ll come find them that day.”
  • Leave your phone behind. Don’t let calls, texts, and a deluge of notifications interrupt your quality time. Be like Rob: “I don’t bring my phone with me, so it’s not buzzing me. That means there’s nothing that’s coming in during conversations to interrupt us.”
  • Limit emails. During our interview, Rob explained his counterintuitive approach: “I don’t send a lot of emails, so as a result, I don’t get a lot of emails.”
  • Catch up later. If you have another meeting or can’t interact, make a commitment to that person to catch up in the near future. Tell them, “Let’s grab a coffee later on” or “Let’s catch up later on.’” Then follow through and meet with the person one-on-one.

Positive leaders draw on the fundamental understanding that leadership is about relationships. It’s based on the process of initiating contact with people, getting to know them, enjoying those interactions, and being fully present with them.

Saying hello, catching up with people, sharing jokes, and updating others about our lives collectively weave the fabric of our relationships, create mutual understanding, and increase our influence as positive leaders. And when you do that, you can create an amazing feeling.

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Leading Forum
Julien C. Mirivel, Ph.D., is an award-winning teacher, author, and professional speaker recognized as a founding scholar of positive communication. Alexander Lyon, Ph.D., is a professor, author, consultant, and speaker known for his popular YouTube channel, Communication Coach Alex Lyon. Their new book is Positive Communication for Leaders: Proven Strategies for Inspiring Unity and Effecting Change. Learn more at PositiveCommunicationForLeaders.com.

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