As I climb the corporate ladder, I find myself in a situation I rarely read about in business litterature or hear being discussed by my peers: making and having close friends at work. Although most people I know have made numerous friends at work, this is not something we talk about often as if work friendships were somewhat taboo or something to keep behind closed doors… In my case, that is really hard as I have met ALL my current friends at work.I mean all of them 🤯
I live in a country (Denmark) where friendships are deeply rooted in childhood and most people have had the same friends for decades, dating back to their years in school. When you move abroad at the age of 24, like I did, it’s hard to keep your childhood friends close. Overtime, the connection diminishes and you lose contact.
So when I moved to Denmark, I had to hit the reset button on friends and build new relationships from scratch.
And don’t get me wrong, making friends sounds easy, but it requires a certain amount of skills and training to become good at it, especially in Denmark where Danes tend to keep to their existing circle of friends. I actually wrote an article about making friends in Denmark. You can read it here: Open letter to my fellow expats in Denmark. When I moved to Denmark, I had to make new friends. I did so at Uni first, where I made many friends, most of whom were foreign students (rookie mistake 😉). The problem with befriending foreign students is that they tend to leave once they graduate… So as we graduated and I entered the job market, I found myself with very few friends left as most of them moved back to their home country. Once again, I had to find new friends. And where does a 30 years old find friends in a country where most friendships are deeply rooted over decades? At work!
As an entry level employee, being friendly with my colleagues was the norm and many colleagues befriended each other. When that is said, as I climb the corporate ladder, I find myself continuously befriending people across the organization because, let’s be honest, it’s always more fun to work with friends. And it’s not because I am 40 years old and a VP that I have stopped needing friends around me. But I admit, I don’t feel like I am the norm and as I take on more leadership responsibilities, I sometimes feel that it is expected that I will distance myself from the people I work with. I once tried, but it’s simply not who I am… I am too friendly and I like people too much to be distant and only be “professional” at work. Or maybe it is expected that at this point in my life, now that I have a family and kids, I would build my network outside work. But let’s be honest, I spend +40h per week working. Aren’t the odds that I find fun and friendly people at work higher than anywhere else? I spend more time at work than with my spouse and kids and regardless of my level, I still make friends at work all the time. What can I say, there are so many great people where I work. 😉
When that is said, I also understand why there would be an expectation for me to distance myself, because let’s be honest, it is not always easy to lead and manage friends. Or at least we think and say so. But I’d like to challenge this assumption because too often we forget that we grew up learning how to lead friends. Isn’t that what we did on the playground in elementary school playing various games or at Uni when doing group work. Wasn’t that working and leading with friends? Didn’t we all spend +20 years of our lives learning how to balance achieving goals and managing friendship all at once on the school benches. Why should corporate work life be any different?
Today, when I look at all my friends, and I mean all the people I talk to and hang out with outside work, I see one common denominator, I met all of them at work. Some have moved on to other companies and we maintained our relationship, but I have met all my friends at work. And I know that being an expat has had a high influence on this, but I have no shame in saying that I have met all my friends at work and that I love to work with friends. I think it’s important to normalize work friendships, at all levels. And I think it’s important to talk about it so we talk about the challenges and opportunities that occur when we lead and work with friends, because most of us face this reality we only whisper about.
For now, I will end this short article here. But I will return shortly with a follow-up where I will gladly present the challenges and opportunities of leading friends and how, as a leader, I balance friendships and professional relationships all and once. Stay tuned 😉