Last year, despite the gloom of a continuing U.S. economic crisis, ongoing political crises, and hideous weather events, was my best business year ever. A number of friends and colleagues said the same. We were all mildly amazed, deeply relieved--and puzzled. Being analytical, strategic types, we fell to discussing why.
What had we done that had worked? Could we do more of it?
We could identify nothing we'd done that had changed: There was no particular sector, no commonality across customers. But when we started to analyze the routes by which new business had come to us, one thing stuck out: Referrals and recommendations had all come via fairly junior contacts.
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This struck a chord with me, because I know, looking back across my career, that all my best opportunities came to me this way. Had I been a focused, strategic networker, this might never have happened. But I've always taken the position that I'll help anyone I can, without question, without regard for whether the person could ever help me in return. I start from the premise that everyone has talent, promise, and potential. And I've rarely been disappointed.
My colleague, it turned out, had done the same thing. "I think I treat everyone as important and serious," she said. "I don't calibrate. I just help if I can."
Adam Grant's dazzling book Give and Take bears this out. Givers, he argues convincingly, do better than takers. That doesn't mean they're blind, insane altruists. They have a weather-eye on takers and won't be endlessly taken. But their default position is to give wherever they can.
Give and Take was my favorite business book last year, not least because it stood out as a healthy antidote to the kill-to-get-ahead books. In a business climate increasingly driven by extreme competitiveness, Grant argued that generosity is more effective, more creative, and more sustainable than dog-eat-dog behaviors. Calculating your way to the top doesn't work--in part because nobody can see far enough ahead but also because such calculation shows and doesn't attract givers, followers, or supporters.
Neither my colleague nor I had been generous to young, rising executives because this was the strategic thing to do. We work as we do because that's who we are. But it was encouraging to see how powerful it can be to give in to your inner generosity.