by Robert L. Dilenschneider, author of “The Ultimate Guide to Power & Influence: Everything You Need to Know“
“Networking” is a misunderstood concept. We tend to think of it in terms of small talk, faked enthusiasm, and self-serving schmoozing. Great networkers, we assume, are aggressive movers and shakers with a knack for selling themselves. Actually, they are heartfelt helpers who understand how the favor bank works.
The most successful people I know have their own networks, which they cultivate like a precious rose garden. They do this by thinking first where they can do some good, knowing that later — sometimes much later — there will be reciprocity.
Navigating this balance of give and take is what I call working the favor bank.
I think of networking in terms of ‘favor banks’ — coined by Tom Wolfe in his novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. The book is satire, but Wolfe’s point about favor banks captures an essential element in how the world of influence works.
It boils down to this: Help other people, and they will be more willing to help you. You make a “deposit” into the virtual favor bank, and later you will inevitably make a “withdrawal.” Just be sure when you make that withdrawal, you do so elegantly and graciously so that everyone wins.
While the concept is simple enough in theory, putting it into practice may require some guidance. You might say, “How could I ever help XX, when I really need them to help me first?” But there’s almost always a way for you to make a deposit in the favor bank, and those deposits will almost always come around to help you in the long run.
A few tips:
1. Research industries and leaders you are likely to meet.
Have something to talk about with them that will convey your knowledge and interest. And most of all, be prepared to listen.
2. Be strategic and thoughtful about where you can do the most good.
This requires advance planning, a realistic view of your gifts and abilities, and a dose of discernment. Don’t spread yourself too thin. Find a way to focus your talent and energies. It’s not about doing ten things just for the sake of doing them; it’s about doing one (or maybe a few) things that have a real impact.
Having a reputation for doing good can pay dividends and helps communicate what your values are. This is a crucial step toward eventually building relationships with power players who share those values.
Frank Bennack, the CEO of the Hearst Corporation for more than 28 years, leveraged personal relationships based on pro bono activities to close “the deal of the century” to buy a piece of ESPN and set the stage for Hearst’s pivot to cable networking.
Of course, power plays like this are way down the road…but you’ve got to start somewhere.
3. Start the relationship off with a deposit, not a withdrawal.
Remember, working the favor bank means playing the long game. Be patient and have faith that your turn to make a withdrawal will, eventually, come back around.
4. Find ways to make “free” deposits.
Learn how to trade in know-how, intellectual capital, and sweat equity. Senior executives get a lot of mileage in their community through leveraging their company’s contribution program. But what if you’re just a young manager without a wad of money to give away?
Let’s say you are a rising executive, and you want to make your impact felt with a politician. You know you can’t make a heavyweight financial contribution. But can you help them in designing their fundraising strategy? Can you spend your evening hours researching a particular topic so they can write a blockbuster speech? Just be sure the candidate’s positions won’t bring embarrassment to your company.
Or, let’s say your community hospital can’t afford a financial analysis function, but you hear that the trustees (who are also the most powerful community leaders) blame serious operating problems on a lack of good analysis. Can you step in and offer your expertise pro bono to troubleshoot the problem? For managers at every level, there is a way to leverage intelligence and ingenuity for impact far beyond your apparent rank.
5. Support the rainmakers — those people who can bring new clients your way…
When Rabbi Arthur Schneier, one of the most influential people in New York and a human-rights activist, called me on a Sunday afternoon and asked whether the company where I worked at the time would help lead an earthquake-relief effort in a country on the border of Europe and Asia, it took me just one second to say yes. First, it was the right and humane thing to do. Second, it paid off handsomely in how the company was regarded. And third, it answered a rainmaker’s call. If you want to maintain an active balance in the favor bank, jump when a rainmaker calls.
6. … but also those powerful people who feel antagonistic toward your business.
I’m talking about special-interest leaders, columnists, politicians — anyone who can be a big-league aggravation. It may sound counterintuitive, but without undermining your business objectives or compromising ethics, do every possible favor you can for those people. It’s done every day by top managers in the Fortune 500. Deposit regularly and heavily in the favor bank.
7. Maximize the impact of your deposits with a personal follow-up.
Let’s say you’re called to assess a candidate for a senior management job at an up-and-coming manufacturing firm. You provide a strong recommendation and are told she’s at the top of the list. Fine. Now leverage that by immediately calling the candidate and telling her she’s likely to get the job. Who do you suppose the candidate will think helped cinch the position?
8. Be smart about managing your growing list.
You must prune your list but never cut people off entirely. The more people in your network, the more opportunities are created for you. One way to manage your growing list is to make categories — contacts in the energy industry, the media, the nonprofit fields, for example.
9. Stay in touch. This isn’t a one-and-done activity.
Cultivate your network and keep your name out there through tools such as newsletters, letters to the editor, and op-eds. Make them informative, useful, succinct. Avoid overpowering the inbox, however. Any of us in business receive more emails in an hour than we could possibly read, even if that’s all we did all day long. Make your message a must-read.
10. Advertise your favor-bank balance (but be discreet about it).
In a speech, you might hear an executive say, “When the local elementary schools needed Chromebooks for remote learning, we were glad to donate some to help equalize education. It was nothing less than an investment in the community and our children.”
This soft-sell advertisement amplifies power and influence. Of course, it must be done discreetly and with caution so as to not oversell. And most of all, it has to be true!
If all of this sounds a little manipulative, don’t worry — it’s not. It’s simply a way of practicing the timeless concept of reciprocity.
Looking for ways to help others does eventually result in their helping you, but that’s not the real payoff. It cultivates a mindset that not only leads to rewarding relationships but also helps you grow as a person. The more you help others, the better person you will become, and the more you’ll experience a sense of fulfillment.
Robert L. Dilenschneider, founder and CEO of The Dilenschneider Group, is one of the world’s foremost communication experts and leadership coaches. Dilenschneider has authored 18 seminal business and career development books. He has counseled major corporations and professional groups around the globe and is frequently called upon by the media to provide commentary and strategic public relations insights on major news stories.