Old-school networkers are transactional. They pursue relationships thinking solely about what other people can do for them. Relationship builders, on the other hand, try to help others first. They don’t keep score. And they prioritize high-quality relationships over a large number of connections. The second ability is being able to think about how you can collaborate with and help the other person rather than thinking about what you can get. We’re not suggesting that you be so saintly that a self-interested thought never crosses your mind. What we’re saying is that your first move should always be to help. Dale Carnegie’s classic book on relationships, despite all its wisdom, has the unfortunate title How to Win Friends and Influence People. This makes Carnegie widely misunderstood. You don’t “win” a friend. A friend is not an asset you own; a friend is an ally, a collaborator.
The best way to engage with new people is not by cold calling or by “networking” with strangers at cocktail parties, but by working with the people you already know. Of the many types of professional relationships, one of the most important is your close allies. Most professionals maintain 5-10 active alliances. An alliance is always an exchange, but not a transactional one. A transactional relationship is when your accountant files your tax returns and you pay him for his time. An alliance is when a co-worker needs last-minute help on Sunday night preparing for a Monday morning presentation, and even though you’re busy, you agree to go over to his house and help. You cooperate and sacrifice because you want to help a friend in need but also because you figure you’ll be able to call on him in the future when you are the one in a bind. That isn’t being selfish; it’s being human.
Just as a digital camera cannot store an infinite number of photos and videos, you cannot maintain an infinite number of allies or acquaintances. The maximum number of relationships we can realistically manage—the number that can fit on the memory card, as it were—is described as Dunbar’s Number, after the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar. In the early 1990s Dunbar studied the social connections within groups of monkeys and apes. There is indeed a limit to the number of relationships you can maintain, but a crucial qualifier is that there is not one blunt limit of 150; in fact, there are different limits for different types of relationships. Think back to the digital camera. Either you can take low-resolution photographs and store 100 of them in total, or you can take high-resolution photographs and store 40. In relationships, you may have only a few close buddies you see every day, yet you can stay in touch with many distant friends if you e-mail them only once or twice a year. But there’s a twist: You can actually maintain a much broader social network than the people you currently “know.” Your allies, weak ties, and the other people you know right now are your first-degree connections. But your friends know people you don’t know. These friends of friends are your second-degree connections. And those friends of friends have friends of their own—those are your third-degree connections. Think of your network of relationships in the same way: The best professional network is both narrow/deep (allies with whom you collaborate regularly) and wide/shallow (weak tie acquaintances who offer fresh information and ideas).