In 2014, at a rather pompous event in the City, I met Fred.
In a room full of big characters straight out of a Tom Wolfe novel, the two of us – office-looking and hassled – clearly stood out.
I wore a dress that I also used as a blanket on overnight flights; he had a haircut which said: “In the morning, I go to work. In the evening, I spend time with my family. I don’t enjoy either activity very much, but I am weak and unimaginative, so I’ll just keep going”.
After failing to strike a conversation with various City grandees – they all seemed to spot a “dear old friend” as soon as I approached – I gave up and retreated to the fire hydrant.
Fred was already there, and we exchanged introductions.
He was a partner at a (revered) management consultancy. I said I was about to start communication coaching. Fred looked interested. “We could use some help,” he replied. “How can I reach you?”
Anyone who works in client-winning business knows that people promise you the moon on the spur of the moment, but then cool down and never call. But Fred did call – the next day. He gave me my first client. And my second. In the past four years, Fred has sent at least a dozen leads my way.
Now let’s consider the opposite case – that of Jake.
Jake works for a mid-tier fund manager. Let’s say he is the head of strategy. Jake knows my work. He says he’s a fan. But each time I ask him to introduce me to his organisation, I get a flat-out refusal.
Why such dramatically different approach? Is it because Fred is a nice guy? Of course not.
Having achieved what most elite business school grads can only dream of, Fred is shrewd and practical.
Professionally, he does nice things, as long as these are good for business.
And being generous with your contacts is excellent for business: it generates new ideas, creates opportunities, and surrounds you with grateful people who are keen to return the favour.
So what’s Jake’s excuse?
He says his company has other training objectives. I believe him. But objectives change, and once they do, those teams which already know their market react better and faster than those which only just start shopping around.
“Your colleagues are so open,” I once remarked to the head of a large investment bank, after getting a meeting with one of his bankers in just two weeks. “Of course,” he replied. “It’s their job to know what’s out there.”
The professional world thrives on generous networks. I learned this when I was looking for my first internship, 30 years ago in New York. “Get out there, see what you can do for people, and what they can do for you,” my friends told me.
This is a very obvious principle, but many of us give up on it as soon as we land a secure job.
Such strategy is short-sighted, as a simple experiment with my LinkedIn contacts proves. Whenever I approach someone with a title “chairman”, or “QC”, or “managing partner”, I get a response the same day.
But when I contact a mid-manager, I can be sure that a tedious game of wait-and-chase will ensue.
So here is the conclusion: being generous in business pays off. And handsomely. You may even call this strategy profoundly selfish.