5 relationship lessons that contribute to great work, career growth, and beyond

By Anne Polakowski, Project Manager

When it comes to doing great environmental work, people often consider education, experience, industry knowledge, and even a passion for nature to be important attributes in a successful environmentalist. But for me, I have one more necessary factor to add to that list: relationships.

As a Project Manager on Atwell’s Environmental team, the bulk of my role consists of managing the environmental work on the front end of prospecting sites, site approvals, development, and getting the local community to approve project work. During my 10 years of consulting on environmental and renewable energy projects, I’ve seen many ways that my professional relationships bolstered my career and enhanced my work experiences. From supporting environmental justice initiatives, to earning a Leadership in Sustainability Award from Detroit 2030, to continuously advocating for myself and other women in a male-dominated industry, I believe in the power of networking and consider it a skill anyone can benefit from at any point in their career.

Anne Polakowski

I want to share some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned when it comes to making genuine connections and leveraging current associations, and how these relationships can make a difference in your career like they have for me.

Lesson #1: Be authentic

One of the best lessons I’ve learned from my relationships is that authenticity matters. I’ve been actively networking for 10 years, and it was hard at first. But it’s gotten easier as I become more comfortable being myself. People want to know who you really are, and they want to connect with that person, not your title or your status.

For me, I love the dirt, I love trees, I love everything with fur (or even scales). When I thought about what major to pursue and what kind of career I wanted, I wondered, “How can I better the world, but also do something I really like?” These are authentic traits and experiences about myself that I share with others. Those kinds of facts may seem small, but can be a huge part of being real and connecting with others.

Lesson #2: Show your work ethic early

I am a member of many professional associations, especially in the Detroit area, where I live. These include: CREW (Commercial Real Estate Women) Detroit; ULI (Urban Land Institute); MAEP (Michigan Association of Environmental Professionals), and Detroit 2030, an organization committed to reducing the environmental impact of construction and building operations. I was intentional about being active in these groups in order to make deeper connections and show what I could do.

My strategy after joining an association is to jump right in, volunteer for a role, and do what I can to stand out. To circle back to being authentic, I genuinely like to make things better, and even when I don’t know how, I want to learn. I looked for opportunities to take on responsibilities that I noticed others weren’t taking the initiative to do—simple things like ordering signs or picking up napkins for an event, and bigger tasks like reviewing our sponsorships for the year. Giving others a chance to see my work ethic and motivation as soon as possible helped them learn about my personality, capabilities, and how I approach projects and overcome challenges.

People saw my work ethic as more of a transferrable skill than any other qualification I had. It then spiked their curiosity about my goals, interests, and other talents. As their faith in my potential grew, so did the opportunities in front of me. The trust and connection I built solidified my role in a lot of spaces—I actually got my role at Atwell based on the work and relationships I built in CREW, co-chairing the golf committee. Once you show others your value, everything begins to fall into place.

Lesson #3: Mentors are great for personal growth and community connection

In an industry that is majority male, skews older, and is saturated with engineers, I’ve often found myself to be the outlier in the room. A supportive mentor has been vital for navigating these situations, getting to know other people, and providing opportunities for them to know me, too.

To find mentors who want to take you under their wing and help you claim a seat at the table can be challenging, but that was very important for me. It can be difficult to look around and not see people who look like you in positions of power—your own implicit bias is to assume that maybe people like you can’t get to those positions. But here at Atwell, I’m thankful for mentors such as Vice Presidents Tracey Dubuque and Bourke Thomas, as well as Director Andrew Dewitt, who have connected me to others, strengthened my confidence as an environmental consultant, and are huge supporters of women in this industry.

They’ve also helped me maintain a realistic perspective on the speed of my professional growth. For example, I’ve been in a few situations where people are dismissive once they find out I’m not an engineer, but I’ve grown to assert myself and my knowledge as an environmental consultant thanks to the mentorship support I’ve received. Even when I’m having a rough day, they remind me that while today may not be the best day, progress can still be made. Those words of wisdom really help.

Lesson #4: Have simple goals when meeting new people

I usually have a few loose, easily achievable goals when attending networking events or meeting someone new, such as talk to three people; get five business cards; or find out an interesting fact about someone. These goals ensure that you’re getting something out of the experience without feeling too forceful or like you’re trying to sell something. It can also help with nerves when you have a personal plan by taking the pressure off. I recommend having loose goals that aren’t too specific rather than having a goal to talk to specific people or discuss specific topics because you can miss meeting great people with those limitations.

Lesson #5: Focus on friendships over business relationships

Behind every business is a person, which is why I advise focusing on developing the personal relationships just as much, if not more than, the business. Every conversation doesn’t have to be about work or the industry. Talk about who you are as a person and learn about them too. This applies to colleagues, current clients, prospective clients, or industry peers. This mindset is helpful when there are notable differences in a duo’s professional status; for example, one person may have decades more experience than the other, be new to the industry, or spend more time out in the field vs. an operational capacity.

Gaining the trust of the person you’re working with opens up the communication pathways and provides a mechanism for more efficient communication and collaboration. There’s nothing better than being able to pick up the phone and call a client directly to talk through an issue for quicker solutions, minimizing the need for other resources and fostering even more trust while cultivating more quality work.

The positive effects of pursuing genuine relationships

Overall, I’ve noticed three major effects in my career due to pursuing genuine relationships:

1. A good relationship with one person has a positive effect on my relationship with others. Because Atwell is so multidisciplinary, I get to regularly work with engineers, biologists, developers, lawyers, and various clients, all with different personalities. I like that I can understand others better and help others feel more comfortable due to our relationship.

2. Building genuine relationships increases your influence. I’ve grown as a team member and as a mentor due to establishing real connections with many kinds of people. It has helped me to better serve clients, connect colleagues to other associates, and gain more knowledge about this industry.

3. Lastly, it changes your perspective for the better. The relationships you cultivate will affect the way you think, work, and interact with others. It can introduce you to new ways of understanding the world around you, while giving you insight to how your strengths can be applied to your professional work.

I’m thankful to have been in professional spaces that encouraged networking and meeting new people. It’s really helped to ignite new ideas and opportunities, and it’s probably the best advice I can give to anyone looking to improve their career.

Culture/Our People, Environmental
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