Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Social Capital

In my previous post, we discussed structural capital. Today, let’s take a look at another equally important piece of intellectual capital: social capital. Social capital is your company’s vendors, referrals, referral sources, and your friends.

Take a moment to consider the amount of clients you have obtained through friendships. Odds are the number is more than a few and maybe most. Friends have value beyond mere friendship; they can help generate business. This is probably the best reason to make friends and have friends, and even to pretend to be friends with people you don’t like. (Okay, so that’s nonsense—I’m just checking to see if you’re paying attention.)

The fact is, aside from being there in good times and bad, friends in the business world can often mean the difference between landing a job, getting that account, or being awarded a juicy contract.

Your means of networking and socializing patterns can be turned into a unique asset with real value. The ability to build relationships is a definite commodity and should be viewed that way. No one else knows the same people you know in the way you know them. No one else has the same resources you have. In all likelihood, you have your go-to guys and gals. Maybe you know just who to call should you happen to need an accountant in Boston. If you need a good lawyer down in Georgia, you can call what’s her face. Or for tickets to the Olympics, you can call one of your Canadian friends (although you’re too late). For getting rid of a body quickly, call Harvey Keitel’s character from Pulp Fiction.

The point is this: the bankers, the insurance people, the number-crunchers are all resources. They are members of your club and vice versa. This is a private club. Not just anybody gets access. They need to be your referral, your customer. Your friend. If you want to have members in your club and in turn be a member of other clubs, you have to be a part of a social capital network.

Once you’ve developed this network, build up this bank account of assets. Systemize it, formulize it. Create conditions in which you can bring the value out to the people you want to deliver that very value to.

Having social capital requires you to be one specific thing: social. Some people are natural socializers— professional socialites. Mingling and shaking hands and getting to know others is simply a way of life. For others, being social is easier said than done. If you are a wallflower, your business may not be flourishing the way it could be for the same reason your life might not be flourishing the way it could be. There is something to be said about being gregarious. Some days, you might not be feeling all that social. That’s normal, that’s part of being human. But if you find yourself not wanting to be social every day, well then, you’re missing out!

I have been given the best advice ever about maneuvering through a strange situation with folks who you don’t know. As the people you meet to talk about their most favorite subject. Them!
  • Where did you grow up? 
  • How did you come to live in this town? 
  • What did you study in school? 
  • What is your favorite movie? 
 The potential questions are endless and the answers are liable to present either new questions to ask or points of common interest and understanding that should reveal you to be one of the best conversationalists in the world.
Not too long ago, I went to a party with friends in a neighborhood I wasn’t all that familiar with. The party was hosted by a friend of a friend—I did not know her. We seemed to drive for hours trying to find the place. It brought me right back to my junior high days.

We finally found a house filled with revelers and joined in on the fun. The mutual friend who brought us to the party had not arrived, and it took us about half an hour to determine we had walked into the wrong party. Everyone had a good laugh, and guess what? It was actually fun. We never wanted to leave that party.

By the time we did, I had made several potential new friends. I’m not suggesting you crash random parties every weekend; I’m simply pointing out that a lot of times the most interesting people are the ones you don’t know precisely for that reason. Everyone has a story—there’s no such thing as a boring person. Even a boring person is interesting by the very fact that they are boring. (My friend Jocelyn knows the most boring person in the world. She loves to tell stories demonstrating how boring this person is. As you might guess, the stories are boring, but Jocelyn has a great time telling them.)

I notice when I go on trips, especially overseas, I am much more social than usual. I like talking to the people I meet. They are just as interesting, if not more, as the ancient ruins and museums any country has to offer (as if museums are ever interesting). When I am on the subway, or in markets and stores in another country, I tend to make an effort strike up a conversation with people. I have met a number of interesting folk this way. Something in the back of my mind tells me, who cares if the conversation doesn’t go well, you’ll never see this person again. Knowing this helps me to relax, be more open to those around me and the possibilities that exist. Then when I get home, I realize I could just as easily be this open and friendly to the people in my own country, my own city and neighborhood. There is no reason not to be. Sure, some people might think you’re a big weirdo if you decide to say hello to them as you pass them on the sidewalk. But that’s their problem. If you’re the type that dreads going to parties, dreads leaving your comfort zone in general—think of social situations as an experiment. Go to that party and imagine you are in another country and that you will never see these people again and that ultimately it doesn’t matter what they think about you. It doesn’t.

“Accept all invitations,” an elderly man, a stranger, said to me in a deli once when I was waiting to be seated. It’s good advice. I’ve benefited greatly from it.

I’ve also heard people say, “I’ve got enough friends,” as if there is a limit to the amount of people someone should have in their life with whom they can share things, laugh, confide in, empathize, sympathize, and relate to.

Yes, having friends can increase the value of your social capital in the business world. But more importantly, in the real world, in the world where we are always striving to get the most out of life and enjoy it and appreciate all it has to offer, you can never have enough friends. They are priceless. Your life will be richer as a result, and not just economically.

Today’s challenge:
Accept all invitations. Go to a party (even one you’re dreading!) and make a point to meet at least one new person. Then consider how you have benefited from this introduction, both as a person and a business associate.