Ep. 124 – David Burkus

Steve:           Welcome to all, our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners, where ever you might be in the world today. This is your host Steve Shallenberger and we have a terrific guest. I’ve been looking forward to this visit and interview. He’s a very talented individual, great background in leadership and innovation. Welcome David Burkus!

David:           Oh, thank you so much for having me and and thanks for that awesome plug. It’s all down hill from here, thank you!

Steve:            We’re gonna have a great time and the subject we’re going to talk about I think is going to be useful, applicable, to really every single one of our listeners us. So, before we get started let’s just talk a little about – I’d like to share with you a little about David’s background. He is a best-selling author, a sought after speaker, an associate professor of leadership and innovation at Oral Roberts University. His forthcoming book; Friend of a Friend offers readers a new perspective on how to grow their networks and build key connections, and this is one that’s based on the science of human behavior not just wrote networking advice. He’s delivered keynotes to leaders of Fortune 500 companies and the future leaders the United States Naval Academy his Ted talk has been viewed by over 1.8  million different listeners and he is a regular contributor to one of my favourite magazines The Harvard Business Review. So, David here we go! Shall we get launched?

David:            Yeah, yeah, thank you! I’m excited. Thanks for having me on.

Steve:            Ok, well if you don’t mind, tell our listeners about your background and especially including any key turning points in your life that’s had a significant impact on you and what you’ve ended up doing. What’s your story?

David:            Yeah, yeah, I mean it depends on how far you want to go.

Steve:            Back to 1812.

David:            I know right? Yeah, it’s one of those things where you don’t  realize what you’re turning points were until years and years later right. So, the story I usually start with now because it made me realize a lot of the importance of the topics that we’re talking about was when I was in high school I transferred schools in the middle of high school and one of the things that got messed up was that the two different schools used two different sort of progressions for how you’re supposed to do your math classes. So I arrived in a geometry class having never taken algebra and the teacher was going over something on the board. She did that thing where you can move a number from one side of the equation the other. It’s been so long since I’ve done a number that I don’t remember what that’s called. But I remembered looking at that and going, “I don’t know how she just did?” That I’m clearly missing something. So I went up to her afterwards and I basically explained that problem and she said, “Okay, we have two options. You can basically transfer to the class were supposed to have your freshman year and you’ll be behind a year or I also teach that class I can give you the text book you can work on it on your own and then come meet with me when you have questions and what have you.”  And so I did that. I taught myself algebra. When I finally took algebra, algebra two –  I got a ninety three, so I think I taught myself pretty well! But the big lesson I learned from that is that you can do anything you need to do in your life if you find the right people to help you, right? And that and that’s why I say was sort of it’s a weird story from my high school life but it’s been a a lesson. It took me a long time to realize that I learned early on and benefited from. So everything else that I’ve done in my life; from being able to write books, hosting a podcast, for a time travelling around speaking, becoming a professor – everything else that I’ve done in my life has been because I decided, “Okay this is what I want to do now. Who the people in need on my team to help me?” And that I mean logically leads to a book like this one A Friend of a Friend which is basically about that idea. I took a much different approach of not just networking to add collections to my to my network per se, I took the approach that there’s this giant network out there and what I need to do to accomplish the things that I want to do is figure out how I navigate to the people that can help me.

Steve:            Wow, that is so valuable and let’s just talk about networking. So, you’ve already alluded to the impact that networking can have on our lives and I think if anyone of us that’s listening today, really reflect upon our lives and things that we’ve accomplished especially things that we’re proud of. Most often we can trace it back to somebody that’s had a huge influence, somebody that’s given us a leg up. Sometimes it might just be an introduction, others might be a long term relationship and that’s open many, many doors. So, why from your point of view, is networking so important and what are the different dimensions of networking?

David:            Yeah, so you already hit at some of it right there. Fundamentally when we think of networks and connections and that sort of thing we think of two different reasons why it’s so important. The first is the one most people think of and it is true but it’s the your network is your net worth through the average of the five people you meet etcetera etcetera sort of advice and they really are studies that show that paying attention to, in the sociologist lingo they call it, “Social capital.” Paying attention to the sort of the value that’s in your connections, the value you provide to them and that that they provide to you and people who learn how to do that especially learn how to do that early on have better more fulfilling careers that make more money, they’re more likely to go into leadership roles – all of those sort of things. So that’s what we normally think of. The thing is I think is interesting is you know you said, “We all have an example of that kind of one person,” – here’s a really interesting thing I found from the research. It turns out that when it comes to influence; the people who are influencing your life it’s not just your friends; This is why the books called “Friend of a Friend.” It’s not just the people that are in your life, in your network now. It’s also the people that are one and two degrees of separation out from you. So in everything from happiness, to smoking rates, to obesity; we see this thing called the 3 degrees of influence. Your friend of a friend of a friend  – even if you’ve never met them has a statistically significant impact on a lot of the dimensions of your life. Which means that it really it behoves everyone to pay attention not just the people that are closest to, but kind of the entire network that’s around them because it’s influencing you even if it’s just and subtle unnoticeable ways. It’s influencing you way more than you know.

Steve:            A friend of a friend of a friend?

David:            Yeah, so the study I like to quote the most often showed that your friend of a friend of a friend so 2 degrees of separation out even if you’ve never met them has a 6%  chance of increasing or decreasing your happiness. And I know 6% doesn’t sound like much but when you look at the relationship between money and happiness and if I gave you a $10,000 raise that would only increase your happiness about 2%. So statistically, I can’t go and say, “Okay so a good friend of a friend a friend is worth $30,000 right? 2% times 3 – I can’t do that because the way the statistics and that sort of stuff work but it’s interesting to me that it does strongly signal that who’s in your network and who is in their network – the people that a friend of a friend of a friend are almost more important to your life satisfaction than how much money you make. And that is an incredibly compelling reason to pay attention to people who are around you.

Steve:            That’s great. Well that’s a big deal so as we’re sitting here today thinking about our futures, our network quote unquote is “gonna have a big influence on our success, our health, our happiness,” is that what you’re saying?

David:            Yeah, no absolutely. More so than we know. You know, there’s that old old old phrase, “you’re the average of the five people you interact with the most? Well that that is true, but the other truth is that sort of the 500 people that are around you are also having a subtle influence on you that it’s important to pay attention to.

Steve:            No, good thought that and just to take that a little further. So many of our listeners are really extraordinary people. These are people that are really trying to make a difference and they are making a difference and so one of the things you’re saying David is as we’re mindful about the people in our lives and that we can actually do some things that impact, that integrate well, in a great way, also our influence is going to touch others. So ought to really be thoughtful about this right?

David:            Oh, you’re exactly right! Right, so you are, yeah that friend of a friend of a friend can influence you but you were also that friend of a friend of a friend for a lot of other people, right? So how are you doing ,what are you doing with the norms that you’re broadcasting? Is your disposition more happy and optimistic, focused or is it constantly sort of critical and negative because you’re having a way bigger impact than you think! You know there’s that other sort of old phrase “You don’t need a title to be a leader?” You don’t need to be hugely popular to have influence. You already have influence in more powerful ways than you know.

Steve:            Yeah, great. So what’s your recommendation to our listeners, David on how to develop an effective network in their lives, especially in the context that you’re talking about?

David:            Yeah, so the big idea in the book is that we kind of need to redefine what it is when we say networking. Most people have this mental model that networking is about finding ways to meet strangers and turn them into contacts, right? So for most people when I say like your network – they think about the number of connections they have on LinkedIn, the number email addresses in their address boo, or if their old school you know they think about health take their rolodex is right? In the end the truth is we need a different mental model. The truth is we all exist inside of a network 7.4 billion people strong and counting and then that network has little clusters, the niches, in there and you have a more sort of immediate network around you. When I say your network, I really mean the network that you already exist in and the best approach is to figure out how to navigate that network and what’s missing for rather than just run up new contacts and I’ll give you a great example of this. Most of us ignore what often referred to as sort of the hidden network. Because if your goal is just to run up to the count, to add as many new people to your network as you can, then you miss what sociologists call “weakened dormant ties.” These are people that you already know but you’re not that close to or you don’t talk to all that often and the studies show that these people are actually more likely to give you new and helpful advice than the people that are close to you for precisely for the reason that they don’t think like you so having exposure to them is giving you exposure to information that you don’t think. And then the other thing we do is we might occasionally ask people for an introduction to a specific person but we we’ve fallen out of the habit of exploring who is that one degree of separation out from us. Who do our friends know that might be useful to get in contact with. Because you don’t ask for introduction, to be constantly sort of searching the fringes of your network to see who’s out there that might one day you would be able to provide value to where they could provide value to you. So I call this in that the you know the sub title we use the term “The hidden network.” I call that kind of the hidden network because it’s the part that most of us ignore. We have a close circle of friends and then we run off to go try and grow our network by meeting total strangers and we ignore the people that we know but we’re not paying enough attention to, or we ignore the people that are friends know that could be useful to us or that we could be useful to.

Steve:            Yeah, well that’s really great and I’m not sure how to ask this next question. You might even be able to help me form the question but we’re talking about a network and you’re talking about a difference between something that is just a checklist. This thing out there that may or may not be helpful is a group of friends. I’m not sure if I’m even getting that right but it’s a whole different quality. You’re talking about a network of relationships of friends of people where you have a vested interest with one another. So is that what you’re trying to say in this?

David:            No, that’s exactly right. I’m talking about, I like to call it sometimes being a good human being, right. Which we often forget to do in the context of a professional network, right?  We do these things with our friends – like when you meet a personal contact, you look for multiple different ways to connect with them you look for who you might have in common, you look for all of these things to get a feel for how your friends connect to each other and then we flip and we switch to the domain of our sort of professional life whether it’s a company we work for company were starting with were looking for a job etcetera, we don’t do that sort of information rich approach like you said, we just try and run through the checklist to run up the count on how many connections we have. We ignore a lot of the value that we know exists because in our personal life, in our personal network we’ve seen it and we don’t do it when we move over the professional side.

Steve:            Yeah well thanks for pushing us a little further along this line because, really it is one thing to be thoughtful, I mean this is one of the purposes life when it’s all said and done you look back and say well I’ve got my family and friends and these are among the things that count most to me and maybe part of what you’re saying is let’s look at these relationships that we have and enrich them and realize there’s also something beyond those relationships we ought to be thinking about.

David:            Yeah, that’s exactly right and you know often like we tend to put people into buckets, right? We tend to have our work contacts in our personal friends but you know the people that I’ve seen that are the most successful are the people that have merged those two right? So I mean families usually important some people are lucky enough to work with their sort of whole family but a lot of people end up you know over the course of their career; the most successful people the ones who the people they work with all their friends not in a weird sort of burn out: “I have no personal life way” but just in a way that they realize that providing value to those relationships, growing sort of the depth of those relationship, making work friends into real friends are making real friends and work friends provides a more enjoyable career and a better life.

Steve:            Ok, that’s good stuff. Now I hope David doesn’t mind. I had a pre peak at his upcoming book A Friend of A Friend. I’m just going to read off some of these chapters for our listeners and then as we connect the dots here, perhaps you can just,  I’m gonna ask you another question as we think about these. So here are some of the chapters Find strength in weak ties that’s interesting I can’t wait to hear about that see your whole network and now we see that in a different context is just not this cold thing it’s a deep meaningful living thing. Become a broker and feel structural holes, seek out silos, oh yeah, build teams from all over your network become a super connector. Man this this is good stuff. And it goes on skip mixers, I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about that and then build stronger ties through multiplexity. So, here’s a question, what have you found to be the best way to approach developing a meaningful network of friends and friends, okay.

David:            Ok, so the strongest reaction I gathered from you is on that skip network mixers thing, so let’s start there shall we? So you again we go with this mental model of. If the goal is to just run up the number of connections you have, you’re gonna have a different strategy than if your goal is to see the entire network that you exist in and respond accordingly if your goal is to run up the count than what you’ve inevitably been invited to one of these networking mixers right the meetups where everybody kind of goes around the room and says when they are what they do and then it sort of like a speed dating for professionals thing where you’re trying to find a useful connection to each other inside a like you know sixty seconds. Of course everybody finds these little awkward. Everybody doesn’t get the connections that, most people don’t get the connections that they need. And then they walk away thinking “Oh I’m just so bad at this. I’m bad at networking blah blah blah,” The truth is it’s not actually it’s not you, it’s the event. The research is is strongly indicative that when the goal and the sole goal of an event is just to meet new people , we  default to our comfort zone ,we default to the things that we’re used to. We end up talking to the two or three people we already know for most of the time. If we do talk to new people wind up talking to people who look like us, act like us, work in the same industry, etc we don’t spend enough time with the brand new connections especially the ones that are more diverse, very different than us right so it’s not you, I mean it is, because we all have this default, but it’s not used in particular it that these meetings fundamentally are kind of flawed. What was a research suggests is that if you participate in what one sociologist calls shared activities – these are these are meetings where the goal is to pursue something bigger than yourself. So this could be everything from you know working for a non profit board, this could be pick up softball leagues, this could be a hobby, this is anything where everyone’s focused on something other than meeting new people, something that they can’t do by themselves and in the process of focusing on that other, you end up looking to the left and to the right and finding people who are more different than you, finding people who are not people you already knew , and you end up building a deeper relationship with them because you’re focused on something else and the relationships almost happened by accident instead of being focused on just meeting new people and defaulting to your comfort zone.

Steve:            Now what a great perspective and description. That may be why there are many people that dread going to a mixer.

David:            If that’s you, then you have my permission to never go to one ever again. As long as you spend that time looking for shared activities. What is the local trade association I can jump in with? What is the charity that I can help volunteer for? What is the the sports that I can pick up and do as a team? You know whatever it is. You reinvest that time in a shared activity, you’re gonna have a way better return on investment then going to that networking mixer and feeling awkward for sixty minutes until you figure out how to leave unnoticed.

Steve:            Ok, that’s great. Now, are there any watch out for our listeners to be aware of when their strengthening and developing this type of network?

David:            Yes, so the biggest watch out is for this is, in the book we talk about the sociological principle called “Homophily,” and I mean it translates from the Greek word, “ love of same” but the interesting thing from a network science perspective is that the primary driver for why our networks aren’t as diverse and full of people different than us as they should be isn’t that we’re all you know we were all just bigots and we want to only know people that are like us. it’s actually kind of a network effect. if you are not paying deliberate attention to your network, what happens over time is you tend to cluster near people who were similar to you. They may look like you, they talk like you, they have the same job as you, there in the same stage of life is you; all of those sort of things and then what happens is that when you get introduced to new people – those introductions come through people who look and act and think like you and some of those new people you’re being introduced to you are more likely to look and think and act like you. So, the homophily thing is actually a network of fact and it takes deliberate action to break out of that. Shared activities is one really good way to do it. You can’t just rely on sort of defaulting to meeting new people through your network. You have to be deliberate about who you’re asking for introductions to but also where you’re going to meet new people so that you’re not meeting more people who look and act and think like you. My favorite term describe these people by the way, the sociologist Ronald Bert uses the term redundancy which is great because it’s not that mean but it is a little mean to show you that if somebody thinks exactly like you then they’re kind of redundant to your life and then there might be a wonderful friend but when you really need to make a tough decision you don’t need redundant connections you need connections or provide you more in diverse information.

Steve:            Such a thoughtful approach as you’re really thinking about your future. You know we have one really one shot at this and fortunately we have redoes if we blow it,  but one life and so is your thinking about this looking for in the future, I think what David is saying to us what he’s teaching us today is to invite diversity into our life. What are areas that we need to grow in? What are areas that would make us more complete? Open more doors? Help us have a greater impact for good?

David:            Yeah, that’s exactly right and one of the questions that I like to ask on a regular basis is the question, “who do you know in blank,” with blank being kind of whatever sector I need to know more people in. So this can be in geography, who you know in Cleveland, it can be an industry that I don’t have a lot of contacts in, it can be sort of an ideological group, right who do you know that votes this certain way. It can be whatever it is we need, instead of just asking our network who should I meet?  It can be a person who is deliberate about asking what type of person you’re seeking out and then ask the people around you who you know that in that kind of community which is going to be a stretch for them because if they’re too much like you they’re gonna have to stretch as much as you would have to stretch but you get a better answer because you’re asking specifically, “I’m looking for more people” in in sort of this category because I don’t have enough of those people in my life.

Steve:            That’s terrific. Well, I’m always amazed at how fast time goes David. Here we are, we’re done like, so it before we end up, do you have any final tips for our listeners keep in mind is they’re working on this kind of a networking, so that they can get it right?

David:            Yeah so the  “who you know in blank” question is one of my big tips. The other one is to spend more time re engaging with those weakened dormant ties. You know a lot of people that you don’t interact with on a regular basis because the busyness of life happens the business of your work happens and you fall out of favour with them, particularly in a work context; former colleagues people who either at a company that you left or part of a business that you started and then left or whatever it is or, who they left right ;these people that you used to work with but haven’t talked to in two or three years – they’re incredibly valuable connections to have for new information and don’t wait to you need it. Start warming up those contacts now and making a point to regularly check in with those people now and it’s finding ways to provide value to them now so that when you need more access to different information or you need help from further out in your network it’s much easier to get in contact with those people.

Steve:            Ok, good that’s great advice. In other words,  part of what brought you together or something perhaps special – a work, a  relationship but you definitely have a contact in one of the words I wanted to pull out there that you said, “What value can you give to them?” Did I hear you say that? Like, that’s a big deal.

David:            No, it’s a huge deal. I mean so that my favorite term to describe sort of networks etc, is that term social capital. It’s kind of weird because it implies that like okay there’s value in relationships and you have a tendency to get into instrumental about it, but when you think about any kind of capital, it follows the investment principle right? The more value you put into it over time, the more it’s worth. You don’t you don’t just start an IRA and then make a million dollar withdrawal from it if you didn’t put all that money in and allow it to grow over time. You can’t do that. And your network works the same way. The more social capital you build over time, the more that will be there now. even if you never withdraw it then you then you’re what I like to call adjusted genuinely awesome human being but it’s also comforting to know that it’s there when you need it , if you’re taking care to provide value to the network that’s around you over time .

Steve:            Well this is been great, this been great today. So how can people learn more about what you’re doing David?

David:            Yeah, so I mean , the book is A friend of a friend – it’s available in every good bookstore if a bookstore doesn’t have it then it’s not a good bookstore let me know how I’ll convert them. Probably the best place to find me – I’m really really unique last name Burkus right so is probably the best place to keep in touch and really, like if you’re if you’re all of you listen all the way to this time did fly but you are part of that sort of end of the podcast club, that could actually stay and pay attention the whole time and  hopefully that means he really enjoyed it so if you did please go to, there’s a bunch of different ways from there that you can contact me keep this conversation going because I would love to hear what resonated with you and how you’re putting these ideas into practice.

Steve:            Well, this is how people become their best. They work on things like this. They gain new ideas new thoughts they develop themselves so they can be one of those contributors and relationships all great ideas, David!

David:            Thank you, thank you so much for having me you!

Steve:            Thanks, David Burkus for being part of this podcast show today and what a great and productive visit this is been and we wish each of you that are making a difference in the world the very best as you go about making that difference and to all of our listeners never forget that as we do these things we become our best to become a light a light that really creates an influences these type of relationships networks we have in and when we give it also comes back in a big way I’m Steve Shallenberger with becoming your best global leadership wishing you a great day thank you for listening

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