< Return to KF Review home page
Collin West Collin West

How to build real relationships, rather than networking, according to science

VCJ LogoThe following story was a guest column by Kauffman Fellows Venture Partner Collin West in VCJ.

If you’re anything like me the thought of networking makes you wince. Networking conjures up painful visions of stilted chit-chat with strangers wearing name tags and strained smiles. There has to be a better way.

And there is. You should actually spend zero time “networking.” Instead, spend all your time building deep, authentic connections with your fellow humans.

This starts with a simple mental shift in a typically transactional business world. Always give first. The law of reciprocity tells us that the best approach is to spend your time trying to help others with their goals first. Do your part by giving without expectation.

Certainly, for venture capitalists like myself, connections are critical, but I’m sorry to say that high-caliber relationships require real work, planning and consistent nurturing. But research does show a few ways you can be efficient growing your relationships.

Here are three steps to follow to build trusted contacts (and even friends), not just collect business cards:

  1. Diversity matters, but it takes work.
    The key isn’t the size of your network, it’s the composition of your network. We’ve all learned about the research that shows diverse teams perform better than homogenous ones at work. But, in terms of the value of your network, diversity also wins. A diverse network actually makes you a more valuable person.Think about it: If you create a network of people who are just like you, you are actually reducing your value. If everyone is like you, then you are receiving information from people who have had similar experiences and will not add much to your sum of knowledge. Similarly, you will not bring much novel value to the group.That finding is at the core of Dr. Brian Uzzi’s trust-diversity paradox. (Dr. Uzzi is a well-known scientist, teacher, consultant, and speaker on leadership, social networks, and new media, as well as a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.)The trust-diversity paradox is this: If you want powerful reach and perspectives, you need diversity. But to have a strong network, you need trust. And people tend to open up and trust folks that are similar to them. So it’s more difficult to build both diversity and trust in new relationships.In an interview with Dr. Uzzi, a former professor of mine, he told me that diversity and trust are more easily achieved in a smaller, better-organized network than in a larger, more scattershot one, so…
  2. Becoming a hub is more effective
    Isn’t bigger always better? Why do you want a more focused and intentionally diverse network? Beyond the benefit of getting out of your own echo chamber, it turns out that more authenticity is achieved among peers in smaller groups.That doesn’t mean you can’t create a large network of great contacts.Dr. Uzzi suggests that, structurally, you can create larger and more effective reach by being a hub that connects a constellation of otherwise unconnected, smaller networks. So much for that giant raging mixer. That might not get you anywhere at all in terms of a valuable network. But actively joining more small groups couldn’t hurt.Personally, I’ve found Uzzi’s advice particularly useful for this kind of counter-intuitive thinking about building authentic relationships.
  3. Use shared experience to build bonds quickly.
    Tactically, Uzzi suggests shared activities instead of, or in addition to, the more traditional mixers and dinner parties. For instance, set up an outing—kayaking, bridge, volleyball—for people who enjoy that activity.Nothing eases social interaction like a shared activity. It’s the best way for people who are not naturally charismatic or affable to feel at ease and build relationships.“When you’re trying to build relationships with people,” Dr. Uzzi says. “A lot of it is about seeing aspects of them that you can praise, letting them know that you value them.”More importantly, have something at stake in the activity: a record that needs to be broken, a win or a prize, or surpassing past performance.The reason, according to Uzzi, is that in situations with something at stake, people want to win. To win, they will drop their defenses, and it’s that transparency that allows you to create an authentic connection.One of the other things about having something at stake, research shows, is that, if you want to bond with someone (and, by bond, Uzzi means trust without evidence) the quickest ways are to celebrate a victory or commiserate after a defeat.

    At that moment, Uzzi says, it’s the spontaneous—again, the authentic you—who is celebrating or commiserating. And that’s what discerning people look for when forming relationships.

The upshot: A network isn’t going to drop in your lap. It’s something that has to be developed, and it’s through these activities that a high-functioning one comes into being.

It really is about what you do together, not who (or how many) you know.


Collin West

Collin West is a venture partner at Kauffman Fellows. https://www.kauffmanfellows.org/collin-west/. He tweets at @collinrwest.