Why I’d Rather Give You $20 Bucks Than My Social Capital

A man’s hand hold an American 20 dollar bill out towards the camera against a black background with some copy space.


If a new acquaintance asked to borrow $20, chances are you’d be a little taken aback. Even if you just finished a pleasant conversation, this ill-timed request might spoil any potential relationship that could have developed.

While $20 isn’t bank-breaking, the stage of the relationships makes all the difference. If a close friend or family member asked for the money, you may not think twice before handing it over, even without an expectation of repayment. If fact, if you sensed a need, you might even offer the money without being asked because there’s been mutual investment and trust built over a period of time.

Most understand the social norms in this hypothetical example and wouldn’t make this error. Yet, when it comes to social capital, something I’d argue is much more valuable, many well-intentioned networkers make this mistake all the time by asking for a valuable introduction too early. Why would I spend my hard-earned social capital so frivolously?

This may sound slightly counter to the networking advice you’ve learned, in which you need to get to an “ask” in order to reach your goal. But you first have to earn that ask by building a relationship.

Real networking isn’t transactional or speedy. It doesn’t come with guarantees of outcomes. If this is your approach, it’s likely not working for you.

Here’s how to get the most out of networking (and avoid squashing relationships before they’re formed):

Don’t skip the chain. One of the most effective networking strategies involves 2nd-level connections (contacts of individuals with whom you’ve already built a relationship). So, for example, when your brother (1st-level contact) introduces you to his colleague at work (2nd-level contact) (learn more in my TEDx Talk). But you can’t skip the chain, meaning, if you’ve just met a new acquaintance for the first time, they may not be ready to introduce you to their trusted connections. You need to invest in the 1st-level relationship, especially if you’re looking to get an introduction to a high-level person. An even worse example of this is when you reach out to a brand new contact with the sole purpose of getting to their contacts. An introductory email stating that you wish to be introduced to someone else will likely go ignored.

Hone your emotional intelligence. Counter to the first point, sometimes first meetings go amazingly well and an instant connection is made. Learn to cue into signs that a relationship is developing positively such as your contact’s willingness to extend the conversation beyond the specified time, finding genuine commonalities in your interests, or being directly asked “How can I help you?” In these cases, a new contact may be willing to make an introduction, and may even offer, unsolicited. This is a great outcome, but one that won’t likely happen regularly. Humans are complex, which makes networking more of an art than a science, so pay attention and act accordingly.

Gain perspective. Depending on the seniority or popularity of the contact you’re hoping to be introduced to, it’s important to recognize they likely get bombarded with requests. Acknowledging this shows awareness, and respecting it will earn you points. In these cases, it may be worth sharing your ultimate agenda and how you’ve committed to this goal. For example, “I’ve spent the last three years posting monthly articles on climate change. After completing a course on book proposals and researching publishing houses that specialize in this content, I’m working on getting a warm introduction to an Editor at your previous firm. What do you recommend to demonstrate I’m ready for this next step?”  In response, you may receive an assignment (e.g., get your first two chapters written) or you may be impressive enough to get a direct introduction. The point is, do not go in expecting to glide through a conversation into the office of a decision-maker. Be strategic and self-aware.

Temper expectations. Focus on building the relationship first, and view any tangible outcomes as icing on the cake. If you want someone to spend their social capital on you, you must invest in them, and this takes time.  The good news is that social media and the internet has made it incredibly easy to follow, learn about, support and even engage with your networking targets. This won’t guarantee an instant introduction or meeting, but when you’re ready to make an ask, having a history of investing in the person will demonstrate your sincerity. Contrast this with the 10 minutes of internet research that most do, and you’ll see why you’ll stand out, even if it takes you longer to reach your goal.

Read signs. If you’re attempting to break into a competitive field or land a lofty goal, pay attention to the subtle feedback your network is giving you. For example, if you’ve been networking faithfully and no one wants to spend their social capital on you, think about what this might indicate. Are you asking for too much too quickly or failing to relay your value or experience clearly? Have you not done your homework or perhaps you’re looking to skip key steps in the process? Your contacts won’t always be direct or comfortable with relaying tough news, so pay attention to their actions, not words. It may be a hard lesson to confront, but if you can course correct, you’ll avoid wasting energy on a strategy that isn’t yielding results.

Practice patience. Most professionals recognize the spirit of networking and that you have a larger goal that likely includes an introduction. But well-connected individuals get several requests and want to ensure you’re serious about your goal before haphazardly passing you along to one of their professional colleagues. If you’re willing to follow through on the suggestions they make, are genuinely grateful, invest in supporting them (perhaps through social media content or other products), and continue to show up with the same eagerness and sincerity that you showed in the initial meeting, chances are you’ll earn the introduction you were hoping for.

Many give up on networking because they expect it to magically provide instant access to jobs, contacts or opportunities. The irony is that networking can work magic, but only if you make it a habit,  investing in others regularly and consistently long before you have a request.

Happy hunting!

Reposted from: Forbes.com

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