CS as a Secret Weapon

Thanks to career expert and blogger Marci Alboher.  She posted a link on Facebook to a Wall Street Journal piece, An Old-School Social Network, which chronicles the “Wednesday 10,” a group of men, then in their twenties, who convened their first meeting in 1957:

“The Wednesday 10 comprised, at various points, more than 20 men; the goal was a number small enough to maintain intimacy yet large enough to ensure that at least 10 members would show up for each of the monthly Wednesday-night meetings. No more than two representatives of any one industry were permitted. The idea was to combat insularity, to keep the men connected to people and events outside their own professions.” Continue Reading »

Variety Counts, Not Numbers

Recently,  psychologist and author Bella de Paulo, posted an interesting question about consequential strangers in an article for psychologytoday.com, “Do You Want the People on the Periphery of Your Life to Become More Consequential.”  (Disclosure:  She didn’t just happen on the book.  I interviewed her about her groundbreaking research on lying for the “Downside” chapter!)

The piece is worth reading.  Professor de Paulo makes some fascinating points about what she calls “intensive coupling”–the traditional view that those in a committed relationship must “be all” to one another, rather than relying on friends and acquaintances to meet some of their needs.   Having written about the alternatives in her own book, Singled Out,  she embraces the central message of Consequential Strangers: to value the connections beyond family and close friends.

I was taken by the authors’ arguments for many reasons, but most of all, because these are the very points my colleagues and I have been developing–only with regard to friends rather than acquaintances.  So now I like Consequential Strangers for another reason. I think that in a big, broad sense, it is a sign of our times.

But later in the piece, de Paulo also expresses personal reservations against having too many consequential strangers:

Personally, I do not want so many of the people on the periphery of my life acting as if they are not actually strangers. Blau and Fingerman described approvingly the “5-10 rule” of check-ins at Westin hotels: “Spend at least five minutes and walk ten steps with each guest.” I read that and made a mental note to avoid Westin hotels. When I’ve finally arrived at a hotel, weary and hungry, after a cross-country flight, a delay at the baggage claim, and a van to the hotel, I really do not want my check-in extended to five minutes. (Now if you want to offer me a cookie, as some hotels now do, that’s a different story.)

Fair enough, I say.  I appreciate Professor de Paulo’s honesty.  In fact, I’ve heard it before.  Statements like,  “I don’t need any more people in my life” and “Who has the time?” often crop up in discussions about consequential strangers.  And my personal favorite:  “I don’t want to have conversations with strangers.”

My response is two-fold:  First, of all, no one says you have to have conversations with strangers–and it’s not “strangers” we’re talking about.  (See Getting Stuck on the Word Stranger? for more on this.) The idea is to become aware of the people who are already on the periphery of your social life.  If you’re like most Americans, they far outnumber your intimates.  We spend the bulk of our time with them, and so it makes sense to value them.

Second, and most important, we don’t need a lot of consequential strangers, just variety.   All you need is a sampling of the diverse types of people you naturally encounter as you make your way through the day–during your commute, when you are at school or work, wherever you pray or play, and when you need a repair or any kind of assistance.   Each of your connections is different from you and probably different from one another.  Their backgrounds, experiences, and personal qualities broaden your own repertoire and make you realize that there are other perspectives.  They’re likely to show you ways to think and approaches to problems that you might never have considered.

So don’t stay at the Westin if you don’t want.  And don’t worry about racking up huge numbers of consequential strangers.  Just make the best of the ones you already have.  You’ll be surprised at all the cookies you’ll collect.

How GM Lost Touch With Its CS…

…And How To Stop It From Happening in Your Company (Or Your Life)

General Motors went into bankruptcy because it had no respect for its consequential strangers–its employees, suppliers, customers, and colleagues in the same industry. In not so many words, that’s what the editors of The Week concluded in its Briefing, The Rise and Fall of General Motors.

“One division’s cars often cannibalized the sales of other divisions. Its in-house parts companies overcharged the various car divisions, which were barred from seeking lower prices from outsiders. And the various divisions resisted consolidating back-office operations such as purchasing and payroll.”

Acknowledging that high-cost labor contracts “crippled the company’s ability to cut costs,” the author also cites “management’s arrogance and complicity” as a factor in GM’s fall. Who could blame the average worker for feeling resentful?

Executives were literally walled off from the rest of the company behind the double electronic doors to the 14th floor of GM’s Detroit headquarters. They entered the building through a private basement garage and took their gourmet meals in private dining rooms. They rarely interacted with customers or even their own dealers, who knew firsthand their customers’ like and dislikes.

The story of GM mirrors how other ailing companies have lost touch with their consequential strangers: when employees and managers exist in two different, non fraternizing worlds, when one division doesn’t communicate with another, and when a company fails to look outside its own walls. They are insular; even consultants brought in act and think like the founders. Such companies are neither as profitable nor innovative as companies that collaborate across boundaries.

And it’s not just companies. Any group of people with a common goal–for example, a grass roots health organization or a spiritual center–can face a similar issue as it grows. It can happen to successful individuals, too. When a close-knit entourage, consisting of a few trusted friends, morphs into a branded enterprise with lawyers, handlers, trainers, accountants, and countless go-fers on the payroll, it makes it difficult for the person to connect. (See Was Michael Jackson Your Consequential Stranger?)

So what serves as preventive medicine?  How do then you stay in touch with the workers, the customers, the volunteers, the constituents, the fans who helped you grow or put you on top in the first place? Not surprisingly, the first step is to acknowledge that an assortment of consequential strangers is vital to the health of your undertaking. To stay connected, even as you grow, you have to innoculate your company against isolation:

Welcome diversity. Seek out coworkers and colleagues of a different class, race, religion, ethnic background, sexual orientation, and age. Even more important, look for people who have different ideas.  Connect with other companies.  Building such “bridges” brings in new resources and a fresh perspective. Otherwise, ideas get stale. And as the story of GM illustrates, people become unmotivated, even bitter, in an environment that squelches innovation and cooperation.

Create a climate of collaboration. The bigger an organization becomes, the greater the need for policies and procedures. But you can never lose sight of the fact that, first and foremost, you need people. And you need them–the high status and the low, the right-brained and the left-brained–to work together. One way to nurture such a climate is to think about your company as a “social convoy”– a constellation of individuals, in and outside the company, who travel with you toward a particular goal. Imagine yourself at the helm, riding in a hybrid minivan down the center of the road, flanked by a handful of your closest advisors. In the outside lanes are employees–perhaps members of the same divisions riding together–as well as suppliers, customers, and others in your industry. In a traditional corporate structure (like GM’s, which Alfred Sloan called “decentralized operations with coordinated control”), workers–if they are heard at all– have to go through appropriate channels to propose a new project or render an opinion of something already in the works. Conversely, in a social convoy cars can jockey positions. And thanks to the technology, it’s possible to communicate with all of them.

Be sincere.  Not that there’s anything wrong with profit and gain (as Seinfeld might have put it), but they can’t be your only motive. If you’re connecting with people only to better the bottom line, get more bodies into church, or convince people to buy your book, they’ll catch on. And they’ll probably desert you. As some might put it, “N.Y.P.A.”–we’re not your personal army.  So just be…yourself.  Do it over lunch, on a street corner or in a café, on the phone or over the Internet. If you’re uneasy about the new media, you might be tempted to consult with one of the so-called experts out there, whose blogs and twitters promise to teach you how. And perhaps they can help, but no one knows “the best way” (or even the five best ways) to reach out to your people.  Instead, why not spend social energy rather than money on expert advice? It might sound kind of old-school and not very flashy, but the best idea might be to just get out there, find a slice of common ground, and connect–one consequential stranger a time.