Networking is the kind of social and professional interaction that came naturally to businesspeople throughout most of this nation’s history, especially in smaller communities. But as villages grew into towns, towns into cities and cities into megalopolises, the sense of community and the close, personal business relationships that went with it gradually disappeared. The rise of large retail chains and multinational corporations, along with the demise of small businesses under the stiff price competition from these giants, further weakened the natural networking that existed.
The disappearance of community-based networking has left a vacuum that is now being filled by strong-contact networks. Business networking organizations such as BNI create a virtual main street for business professionals–an environment and a system for passing referrals that is the 21st-century equivalent of the traditional model for doing business.
As Eric Lesser, in his book Knowledge and Social Capital, notes, “Without a shared understanding of common terms, activities and outcomes, it becomes very difficult to reap the benefits associated with building social capital.” The power of business networking organizations is that they provide these common terms, activities and outcomes in a system that is designed specifically to accomplish this goal.
When you join and attend meetings in a business networking group, you build social capital in a number of ways. You gain the trust and friendship of fellow members; you provide valuable referrals; you contribute knowledge and skills to the effort; you become more knowledgeable and improve your social and business skills. Not least, you get out of your cave–the self-imposed isolation that many business people fall prey to.
Like financial capital, social capital is not only earned and accumulated, it can be spent. The international networking organization BNI has Givers Gain as its guiding principle: The good you do comes back to you over the long term and often in indirect ways. You accumulate social capital by providing help, advice, information, referrals and other benefits to your fellow networkers, with no thought of a quid pro quo. By gaining the trust of others, gratitude for value provided and a solid reputation for integrity and expertise, you become a person whom others wish to help whenever an opportunity to do so presents itself.
A colleague of mine worked for several years with a financial advisor who was a very passionate networker. In fact, he founded a chapter of an international networking organization and became very active as the president of the chapter. He gave more referrals than anyone else in the chapter; however, he got very few referrals back in return.
He came to my colleague a little frustrated about this. My colleague told him it takes time to build trust, especially in the financial services industry. He recommended several books on the subject and suggested that the advisor attend some training programs my colleague was offering. The financial advisor’s reply was a complete surprise. He said, “Train me to train the programs.”
My colleague said, “Aren’t you concerned that you’re already giving a lot more that you’re getting?”
He said, “Yes, but I know that trust takes time, and giving people valuable training at my expense will build trust.”
He became my colleague’s lead trainer and assistant director in Winston-Salem, N. C., and continued to give even more of his time and energy than he ever had before–even though he had been very active in his previous leadership role. His network rewarded him in an amazing way. Over the next 24 months, he received referrals worth $36 million–proving once more that givers always gain in the end.