Vital Friends: The Team That’s All About You

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Both health and wellness CEOs and individual practitioners need “vital friends” — the folks who measurably improve your life and work experience.

What is a “vital friend?”

They may be coworkers, a boss, a spouse or life partner, or other friends or family members. They aren’t necessarily the people you go out with on the weekend.

They may live in your community, or you may stay in touch online. And you may have known them since childhood — or for only a few months.

This fascinating concept reflects workplace research conducted by Tom Rath of the Gallup Organization (yes, the people who conduct the Gallup surveys!).

Bottom-line, they found that professional and personal success correlates very highly with the number of “vital friends” you have.

How can I identify my vital friends?

You can spot them by asking yourself these questions:

  1. If this person weren’t around, would my overall life satisfaction decrease?
  2. If this person weren’t around, would my work achievement or satisfaction decrease?

What roles do vital friends play?

Rath’s research identifies eight key roles:


  • People who motivate you to reach for the stars by helping you see your strengths and make the most of them.
  • They believe in you when your own confidence might be faltering.
  • Great coaches and mentors for personal and professional growth. Generous with their time and know-how.
  • They’ll offer pats on the back for success — and then raise the bar again!


  • People who sing your praises in public and in private, to you and to others.
  • They’re happiest when you’re flourishing.
  • They’re loyal to you and accept you without judging or second-guessing.
  • These folks are your biggest cheerleaders and fans.
  • They’ll praise you to others – when you’re a bit hesitant about appearing self-congratulatory.
  • And they’ll defend you if others criticize.


  • These individuals share strong interests with you.
  • Examples might include charitable or civic interests, a particular sport or shared allegiance to a certain team, religious beliefs, and other outside interests and hobbies like organic gardening, reading biographies, or coaching soccer.


  • When you’ve got great news – or awful news – companions are the first people you reach out to.
  • These are lifelong friends and the people you describe as being like family.
  • If you find yourself saying that “I’d trust her with my life, ” chances are you’re describing a Companion.
  • They may be a spouse or life partner, and they can also be a business partner or close friend.


  • As the description suggests, Connectors help you build your network by introducing you to people who can help you get what you want.
  • These are the people with the “golden rolodexes” who have a resource for every occasion, whether it’s repairing a fence, making a sales call, or looking for a great primary care doc.
  • They’ll often invite you to events – lunches, dinners, workshops, conferences and other group activities.


  • Having a bad day? Turn it around by having lunch with an Energizer!
  • “I always feel better after talking to him” is the classic description of these people.
  • They’re great at lightening the atmosphere with a well-timed funny story or invitation to coffee.
  • And when you’re having a good day, running into an Energizer is the icing on the cake.

Mind Openers

  • Remember the song “Things That Make You Go Hmmm…?”
  • These people challenge the conventional wisdom.
  • They’ll shake up your preconceptions and firmly-held beliefs.
  • You may find yourself in a lively, even heated, conversation with these folks — or find it freeing to be able to openly share opinions that you know others might find controversial.
  • And they may push you to justify your opinions or ideas in ways that help you broaden your perspective.


  • Like a co-pilot, Navigators help keep you pointed in the right direction based on your aspirations and hopes for your future.
  • When you’re struggling with options – return to school fulltime or accept a transfer — these people have a talent for helping you think through the pros, cons and tradeoffs.
  • When you’re thinking about a big decision, they’ll focus on how it fits with your goals.

What’s the most common misunderstanding?

Vital friends are usually very good at providing support in one or two roles. But virtually no one’s great in EVERY role. For example, the person who’s your greatest champion probably doesn’t challenge you to rethink what you’re doing. That’s the strength of a Mind Opener. And someone who’s great at turning lemons into lemonade – an Energizer – probably isn’t as good at helping you see all the possibilities in a situation. For that role, you need a great Navigator.

What’s the biggest mistake?

If you expect a vital friend to fill EVERY role, it’s easy to slip into focusing on their deficiencies. For example, your spouse may be a great Collaborator and Companion – you love to work out together, you both enjoy goofy movies, and you’re both deeply spiritual. Yet when you need help figuring out a work problem, you’re frustrated because he or she doesn’t have great Mind Opener or Builder skills and can’t help you brainstorm possibilities.

Rath also describes “bellyache buddies.” All too often, your closest work relationships may be with people who join you in griping and moaning about how lousy your work situation is. Unlike the eight types of supremely valuable “vital friends” we discussed above, these are unproductive relationships that reinforce negativity and resentment.

Instead, look for Builders, Navigators, and Mind Openers to help you change your situation.

Apply this concept in your own life:

  • Identify your vital friends in each of the eight categories above. If you’ve got someone you consider a mentor, ask yourself which of these roles that person really fills.
  • Prioritize the gaps that you need to fill most urgently.
  • Develop a plan to create the missing roles.
  • Follow up with a plan to strengthen the vital friends you already have.
  • Assess your own affinity for each role. What are your strengths as a vital friend?

Rath’s book, Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford to Live Without , includes a user ID that gives you access to the Vital Friends Assessment tool and website. The book also offers additional suggestions for strengthening your existing relationships and filling in missing roles in his book.