Network or nurture: Why don’t more companies teach the building blocks of relationship capital?

By David Kahn
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Photo: Jess Sochol

I’d like to think I’m pretty good at revenue generation—what they used to call “sales” back in the day—but I remain completely stumped by two contradictory realities of Corporate America. On the one hand, possessing a vibrant professional network is even more important than it was when I started out. In a hyper-connected world that makes it so much easier to find relevant leads and resources, developing and nurturing authentic human touch points is crucial. After all, if everyone can reach everyone, forging a meaningful bond is that much tougher and more valuable. (They don’t call it relationship capital for nothing.) After product knowledge, persistence and communication skills, a dynamic and growing network is the next essential component to success—for individuals and organizations alike. 

Which makes the following reality all the more surprising: For all the training that organizations offer their employees, the array of topics rarely includes developing networking skills or deepening the understanding of how to use accumulated relationship capital—the sum and substance of the connections and knowledge each of those employees possesses. Sure, many companies, firms and agencies offer workshops on presentation skills, closing strategies, storytelling and the like. But these are sales tactics, not networking ones. And yes, many encourage staffers to attend conferences and other industry gatherings, if for no other reason than to collect business cards. But such efforts are Networking 0.5, as relevant to accumulating real relationship capital as tenth grade Home Ec is to becoming a Michelin chef. 

The instincts, skills and strategies necessary to build a vibrant and productive professional web of contacts are varied, complex and by no means natural to most people, even “natural salespeople.” Understanding reciprocity, mapping relationships, intuiting the self-interest of others, prioritizing conflicting needs, professional matchmaking, normalizing agenda-free but genuine communication—these are the building blocks of robust relationship capital. I suspect that’s a major reason so many organizations don’t bother to teach networking. If you believe network builders are born, not made, that either you have the skills to build and tap successful networks—some combination of high social IQ, effort and extroversion—or you don’t, then what’s the point?

Well, I beg to differ.  

Although many aspects of networking and contact development are indeed soft skills, my experience tells me these qualities can, like most anything else, be broken down into theory, strategy and tactics. They can, in other words, be taught. And they must be, at least in any enterprise that wants to maximize and leverage its internal relationship capital. 

I’m not saying it’s easy. I haven’t invented a formal curriculum. But I want to, because whatever your field—business services, technology, manufacturing, nonprofit or something else—robust networks matter far beyond conventional sales and deal cycles: from sourcing expertise to forging alliances, from recruiting talent to researching new business lines. And that’s especially true at the higher reaches of the org chart. As responsibilities increase, goals grow more challenging and the need to gain access to and tap influencers and decision-makers increases exponentially, not just one’s own but those of the larger enterprise. I can’t tell you how many deals I’ve completed because of connections that came from colleagues who had nothing to do with sales or marketing.

Look around your organization, and ask yourself two questions. How many of your colleagues—salespeople and executives alike—are as skilled as they could be at developing, nurturing and leveraging their professional networks and those of their coworkers? And, more crucially, how much longer can you wait until all of them are?


David Kahn is executive vice president of sales and marketing for The Wall Street Journal Office Network. This is his first piece for RelSci.

RelSci helps create competitive advantage for organizations through a crucial yet vastly underutilized asset: relationship capital with influential decision makers. 

1 thought on “Network or nurture: Why don’t more companies teach the building blocks of relationship capital?”

  1. Excellent article by David Kahn.
    The quality of a social relationship has always been important to business. This emotional perception has been locked in people heads and are now being un-locked and shared in this hyper-connected and hyper-connected world.
    The current opportunity for assessing, capturing, measuring, and utilizing Relationship Capital (RC) is to define it. In capitalism, businesses account for their finances with income statements, balance sheets, and cash flow. Relationship Capital is an asset (appreciating or depreciating) that is not currently being accounted for by for-profit businesses. I have spent almost a decade in working with people smarter than me in developing an open standard for RC. You earn relationship capital by making and keeping commitments and building positive perceptions.
    These kept-commitments and positive perceptions are credited to your RC account by the person who received your kept-commitment and/or has a perception of you they are willing to share. We learned early in the development of this open standard that in order to consistently earn RC you need to be honest, accountable, responsible, respectful, supportive, and trustworthy. These were the agreed to “guiding-principles that the team defined. At it’s core, our definition of #RelationshipCapital (RC) is an accounting of trustworthiness. Business leaders across industries have always known that the quality of a stakeholder relationship was important, but now the interconnected tribe has a lot to say about your influence and credibility.
    Companies that out-behave the competition by earning and accounting for Relationship Capital (RC) will be distinctive. Yes, people can learn and practice standards of relationship capital.
    In fact, people want to work for business organizations with purpose, performance, and relationship capital. Customers and clients want to buy from these types of firms.
    It is about integrating Relationships and Results. Not one over the other.

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