Keith Ferrazzi – Why Relationships Are Crucial to Success

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Keith Ferrazzi is founder and chairman of Ferrazzi Greenlight, a research-based consulting and training company, and he is The New York Times bestselling author of Never Eat Alone and Who’s Got Your Back? Wharton management professor Adam M. Grant recently interviewed Ferrazzi when he visited campus as a guest lecturer in the Authors@Wharton series. In this interview, Ferrazzi talks about the importance of making a people plan; how to learn to become more generous with those around you, and what to do when your generosity is met with skepticism.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Adam Grant: We would love to chat with you about what you are known best for: building relationships and networking. Talk to us about how you think about building relationships.

Keith Ferrazzi: The fact that I’m here is probably part and parcel of the fact that you and I believe very much the same thing. Number one, relationships are crucial to our success, no matter what we want to achieve in our lives, whether it’s to be President of the United States, the CEO of a company, to right some social ill or whatever it is. That is what [Ferrazzi Greenlight] studies. It is a research institute on relational and collaborative sciences, particularly focused not just on studying relationships and how one goes about building better relationships, but more importantly, how do we change behavior? How, in fact, do we sustainably change the behaviors in our lives to step up to be more effective in our relationships and our collaborations?

I always ask the question, “What do you want to achieve in life?” Then the next question you always have to ask is, “Who are the people who are necessary to achieve that?” That’s when we introduce something that we call “a people plan.”

The next thing we believe is that people are too damn busy. People are too damn busy to spend any time with you. People are too damn busy to pay attention to your issues, unless, of course, you lead all relationships with generosity. What’s in it for them? That’s the old way of thinking — that it’s a balance sheet, a scorecard. It’s really not. It’s really just [maintaining an] unadulterated focus on making other people successful. If you walk around the world creating an environment around yourself that invites people in [so you can] be generous to them, you will have extraordinary success. Those are the basic principles: People are critical, and go help them.

Grant: I love the message. Let’s talk about how to make it practical. If I want to think about being more generous to the people around me, what are some of the steps you recommend?

“Relationships are crucial to our success, no matter what we want to achieve in our lives….”

Ferrazzi: First, you have to develop what we call “your currency.” There are three layers of currency that you have to offer. Any one individual can exercise any one of them with more or less ease. The first layer is the kind of generosity that just makes people want to be around you. We call that “universal currency.” Are you the kind of person who people want to be around? Some people use wit. But I have to tell you that the leading indicator of whether you are the kind of person that people want to hang around is authenticity….

The reptilian part of our brain that drives our fight-or-flight mechanism is really what’s in control here. Anthropologically, while we long to connect with other people, we long to be in what’s called an “in-group.” On the other hand, we’re so fearful, particularly in the last 20 to 30 years where we don’t have as much practice being communal, that another person is “them” instead of “us” — they’re not our tribe; they’re another tribe. We walk around putting guards up, pushing people away. The ability to get into somebody’s in-group is the ability to let your own guard down.

I get into a lot more detail about that in my second book, Who’s Got Your Back?, where I teach people how to be more effective at building those lifeline relationships. If you don’t have those lifeline relationships, those deep, intimate, kick-your-butt, tell-you-the-truth, love-you-no-matter-what, care-for-you, help-you relationships, the extension of your network is going to be quite weak.

By the way, I highly advocate therapy. I highly advocate seeing a coach or a priest or whatever it takes. Some people have such difficulty trusting other people that sometimes you have to pay somebody to practice learning how to trust. The great athletes in the world have at least two or three coaches. If you want to be the best relational athlete or spousal athlete, if you want to be the best leadership athlete or if you want to be the best professional athlete, go get a coach.

The next layer focuses on the professional currency, and I think most people have curated that the most. We lead in the world with strong professionalism. We bust our butts. We do a great job. We make sure our products are solid. In retrospect, I spent way too much time early on as an entrepreneur selling as opposed to generously serving. Once I started to generously serve, my product got better as an entrepreneur. Even in that area of professional currency, people who believe that their job is to sell stuff, versus serve a community, don’t do as well.

The third layer of currency that we all have to curate in making other people successful and creating an environment around us is literally trying to understand what the hell somebody cares about [on a personal level]. I have a 15-year-old foster son, and I’ll spend time with anybody who wants to help the foster care system and is willing to put their money and their time behind it.

All I care about, and all my firm cares about, right now is making a difference in the world around relational competencies and changing people’s behavior and moving the world toward a greater degree of relational competency, generosity and humanity…. If you’re going to build generosity, you’re building it on the three layers: the universal currency of who you are and how you interact with people, the professional currency of delivering an extraordinary product, and the personal currency of ultimately saying, “By the way, I’ve got some good baby books. I understand that you’re a new dad and that there are some opportunities for you to consider things that I can do for you.” I want to serve you in whatever way possible to make you a better person and more successful personally.

Grant: It makes sense. One of the challenges that many of us run into is when we approach networking or relationship building with this idea of helping others, they often react with suspicion. “Why do you want to help me? What’s in it for you?” How do you manage that?

Ferrazzi: Be transparent. I think the weirdness is that we think that this has to be something cloistered…. I have an African-American kid. When we brought my boy into our home at 12, I decided I needed more African-American leaders in my life. I started reaching out to African-American leaders in the Los Angeles area saying, “Hey, listen, I’ve just brought in a foster son. I want this child to have an incredibly strong and proud and rich upbringing as an African-American youth. I want to make sure that there are other influences in my life.” Guys like Jay Williams from Duke are now a part of my friendships…. There’s nothing wrong with transparency when your heart’s in the right place.

“[P]eople who believe that their job is to sell stuff, versus serve a community, don’t do as well.”

Suspicion means they are waiting for the shoe to drop. Well, just drop the damn shoe right upfront. Say, “Hey, dude, you’re interesting. You’re a poet. I want more poets in my life.” I want journalists in my life because they read, which is a relief in Los Angeles. I reach out to people, and I just tell them that.

Grant: I love it. What do most people do wrong when they approach relationships and networks in your experience?

Ferrazzi: It’s a mindset of, “What’s in it for me?” That’s the first thing. That stinks on their suit a mile away. It needs to be a values-based judgment of how you’re going to live your life. Now by the way, there’s an AA slogan called, “Fake it till you make it.”

The point is that, little by little by little you have to be able to recondition your brain. That’s one of the things about human behavior change. Human behavior change doesn’t happen through knowledge. If it happened through knowledge, then nobody on a diet would eat a piece of cake. The bottom line is we need to experience behavior change. Small doses of incremental positive experiences change mindsets. You change the behavior to change the mindset. We, unfortunately, have addictions. I use the word “addiction,” and I follow things like 12-step programs and other mechanisms to shift behavioral addictions because everybody has an addiction. There’s not a single person that isn’t addicted to feeling less than in a room, procrastinating, being too shy, being too insecure, being too whatever, tempers, any behavioral addiction that holds us back. All these things are nothing more than addictive behaviors that we practice even though they don’t serve us well.

Little tiny doses of new behaviors — pushing yourself incrementally — will be the way in which we change those behaviors.

Grant: In the spirit of transparency: In 2005, I had a group of MBA students who were reading your first book, Never Eat Alone. Everybody was buzzing about it. It was changing the way they were thinking about networks. I went and read it. At first, it was very hard to process. As a relatively introverted guy, I want to eat alone. You really pushed me to think differently about how I manage my network. What’s been the reaction to the book over the years?

Ferrazzi: My life has been transformed because of it. It gave me a purpose that I didn’t think I would have. When I was young I wanted to be in politics and then was disillusioned by that. I found my way back around to being what I think I was put on this planet for: to try to make a difference, to make an impact. As an entrepreneur, as a philanthropist, as somebody who wants to help disadvantaged communities, what I’ve really learned is that this book has given me entree, as now yours has and will. It’s really powerful….

“One of the challenges that many of us run into is when we approach networking or relationship building with this idea of helping others, they often react with suspicion. ‘Why do you want to help me? What’s in it for you?’”

We’ve engineered behavioral understanding. By engineering behavioral understanding around relationships particularly, we’ve thin-sliced the practices so that we can give people small doses coated in sugar that give them a chance to begin to shift massive mindset changes. We’ve been very proud of being able to do that at some pretty damn big companies to extraordinary results. One particular large telecommunications company over the last two years got $3.2 billion of new pipe line and $1.7 billion of new revenue around key strategic accounts just by applying the intervention methodologies that we put into place.

Grant: Wow. What kinds of behavior changes are we talking about that at least move in that direction?

Ferrazzi: Behavior changes are too broad even. One of the things we are realizing is that behavior is made up of a set of practices. [For example,] the behavior is [building] loyal relationships with your customers. That’s been preached for years. On the other hand, to say to an individual, “Think of three of your customers who you authentically admire, send them an email right now telling them that you authentically admire them and ask for a cup of coffee,” that’s a practice. That’s a practice of somebody who’s relationally and loyally minded. That one practice with 15 consultants in one of the largest consulting firms in the world created $258 million of new revenue in nothing more than two months because it opened an authentic door that they hadn’t been willing to open themselves….

Grant: It’s interesting to hear about the impact in the corporate world. What about in disadvantaged communities?

Ferrazzi: Well, the first one we chose was an orphanage in Guatemala. I thought I was going to go down there to give some money out. What I realized was that the glass ceiling, the addiction, the behavioral limitation of these very smart kids was that they did not believe they could break through their cycle of poverty. The best that they could do was go out and pick beans in a field like their parents had.

We started adapting our philosophy and our strategy, basically combining the lifeline groups of Who’s Got Your Back? along with the relational outreach of Never Eat Alone. It’s similar to what the Grameen Bank does for its micro-lending, but we started teaching high potential orphans in Guatemala. It was amazing. This population didn’t go to school. These kids started graduating from high school, going to school and coming back as nurses, doctors and teachers. We have an entire cycle of rejuvenation occurring using this methodology there.

We brought it back to the U.S. for foster kids. It’s an extraordinarily broken system. It’s a major passion of mine. We have a foster son and perhaps another on the way. We’re negotiating whether we can handle it at home right now. But our hearts certainly can and our bedrooms are available. Really helping kids — because these are kids whose relational competency was broken early because their primary relationship severed that relational competency. Then they were thrown into a transactional system — no intimacy, no care, no trust, no love. They graduate from that system incapable of bonding, incapable of looking you in the eye and establishing any degree of trust — no job competency. They find families in gangs. They find intimacy in prostitution. They’re the highest homelessness rate. It’s horrible.

Unfortunately, the politicians won’t fix this system because nobody cares about these folks’ votes….

Grant: You are known for making introductions and connecting people who don’t know each other. Any tips you can offer to our listeners and readers about how to make an excellent introduction?

Ferrazzi: The key is to do your research. Back in my day, I had card catalogues to do my research on. Now we’ve got the Internet. You need to get into the mind of the person sitting in front of you and put that triangle on top of them. You have two people you want to introduce. Make sure that there’s value to both of those individuals….

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