Giving, Taking and Getting Ahead

Spring has sprung here in Vancouver with its bounty of networking events and opportunities to reconnect with colleagues.

In between fun appointments in my social calendar, I sat down to read “Give and Take” by Wharton business professor Adam Grant. If you’ve ever felt anxious about networking, skeptical about selling your services or burned out from fielding non-stop requests for help, this book is for you.

Adam Grant, Author of Give and Take and Professor at the Wharton School of Business

Adam Grant, Author of Give and Take and Professor at the Wharton School of Business

Most of us have been taught to view networking as a zero-sum game where people act in their own self-interest; I’ll do a favour for you with the expectation that you’ll do something for me in the future. Grant refers to this type of behaviour as “matching”.

As it turns out, matching isn’t the best way to succeed in the long run. And neither is “taking” (for obvious reasons). What actually works?

Grant’s careful research shows that the secret to getting ahead is to be as sincerely helpful as possible to as many people as possible. And not to expect or demand anything in return.That last part is the kicker that no one tells you about.

Some of the other interesting things I learned from Give and Take:

About Takers

  • It’s easy to spot them: look for the people who are “all about me” in their marketing – promoting themselves instead of the firm, speaking about their individual accomplishments instead of their group’s achievements

About Matchers

  • While givers create a ripple effect of benefits from their networking activities, matchers can only draw from a shallow pool of quid pro quo favours. This limits their influence.
  • Takers and matchers can benefit from shifting their behaviour towards giving, as long as their effort is sincere

About Givers

  • Givers build goodwill and credibility. They work on unglamorous projects, they work well with people at all levels throughout a firm, etc. By doing this, they gain exposure to perspectives that enable better long-term decisions for the organization as a whole.
  • Givers are more successful business developers than takers and matchers, although their colleagues might undervalue their talents in this regard. They see their job as to help, not to sell.
  • Givers are humble enough to ask for advice. This can be a more influential approach to negotiation than establishing a dominant position at the start (typical of takers and matchers).
  • Givers aren’t necessarily always agreeable and pleasant, but they are consistently generous with their time and expertise
  • Givers face two major risks: burnout and exploitation. There are strategies to mitigate both.

Lawyers and other professionals who are cutthroat, competitive and aggressive are often rewarded in private practice. We appoint them to leadership positions, saying that they “have what it takes”. We compensate them based on short-term results instead of a range of long-term contributions. Grant’s research shows that this is probably a mistake.

If we are able to stop looking at business relationships as win: loss transactions, we have a decent chance at creating real value for clients. Value is not about discounting fees or winning at someone else’s expense. Value is about getting creative with options, given the needs and goals of both parties.

Give and Take illustrates the premise that giving is better than taking through the stories of lawyers, business leaders and every day people. Grant offers readers a new path towards career success – one that is likely aligned with your values and your goals, and that will be more successful for the profession in the long run.

Learn more:

This blog post was originally published on on May 7, 2014. All images have been published with the permission of Adam Grant.