Somewhere in your office you probably have a stack of business cards from people you met at conferences or tradeshows or similar events. There’s a pile of interesting contacts, some of whom you actually followed up with and the little stack of cards from competitors. The cards from vendors and from people you don’t even remember and the one from that guy whom you politely listened to while thinking. “I bet I can get that off-balance table at Sal’s Pizzeria to stop rocking if I fold this business card twice and slip it under a leg.”
Each of those cards represents something special: a relationship. On the vendor side of the table - my side, the importance of building and sustaining a network of strong connections is obvious. Relationships are my manna. They are the sustenance of my business.
However, on the client side (i.e., your side if you’re not a service provider), most executives don’t fully grasp the value of weaving a vibrant tapestry of friendships and affiliations. At least, not until they find themselves tapping their meager network in search of a new job. When most of your contact list sits within the walls of your (prior) employer, it can be tough to uncover employment opportunities.
But I’m talking about something larger than that. No matter our occupation – consultant, client, clown, whatever – relationships are the currency of our lives. They are the true measure of our wealth. Social mores and cultural pressure aside, money is a poor indicator of how well-off we are. We know from watching mean, grouchy Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life that financial success doesn’t bring happiness (though a consistent lack of financial gain often ushers in misery).
Does a calendar filled with leisure time suggest we’ve “made it?” Not likely. Countless hours wasted on games of solitaire can hardly sing testimony to a rich life. Lives lived in a vacuum are meaningless. Years spent with a tiny, inner circle leave little imprint. In contrast, when our lives are intertwined with others, creating value for those in our large web of relationships, we create lasting, positive impact on the world around us. In return, we enjoy commensurate growth in the accounts that matter most.
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” I bet the last time you heard or uttered that phrase it carried an undertone of distaste. The unsaid message is that you should win the promotion, the support, or the job based on your knowledge, or your approach or your experience, expertise and skill. For goodness sakes, isn’t the “best man” supposed to win? Shouldn’t the rewards go to the individuals who can produce the best results? Don’t we want, ideally, to live in a meritocracy?
I’ve got news for you: we do live in a meritocracy, you just may not like the definition of merit. When you realize that relationships are the ultimate measure of success and wealth, you understand that the candidate who knows the right people is the one most deserving of the job, the contract, the promotion or whatever else is up for grabs.
So, what does this mean for you and your day-to-day activities as an executive?
- It means you should call back the people who reach out to you. Everyone deserves a response – because ultimately it’s good for you. That includes the headhunters calling when you’re happy in your job, and the vendors whose offerings don’t interest you. You should even call back the classmate who contacted you out of the blue after 20 years and is probably looking for a job.
- It means it’s okay to call people you know at other companies, including vendors and competitors, even though you’re neither offering “value” nor buying anything. Nurturing the relationship is inherently valuable.
- It means you don’t throw away any of the business cards in the stack on your desk. Fold up one of your own to stop Sal’s table from rocking. You never know who will eventually connect you to business and you never know who might connect you to something even more important than business.
- It means it’s more than okay to ask your current contacts for introductions to new people. Your network of relationships is accretive and every new relationship is a positive addition.
- It means you reach out to everyone in your network in a least some way – even just a “Hello” email – at least once a year.
- And it means you leave work early today so that you can strengthen your connection with your closest family and friends
Sure, you can devote a few more hours to fighting the latest fires, preparing for an upcoming meeting or working on a “critical” deadline. But if you redirect that same time into developing some new friendships you’ll find yourself to be a more successful executive, and a wealthier person in the truest sense.
David A. Fields, author of The Executive’s Guide to Consultants (McGraw Hill, 2012), improves companies’ success with outside experts. Read an overview of his advisory service or contact him by e-mail at [email protected].