The Economy of Favours
In our book Lead the Work John Boudreau, Ravin Jesuthasan and I, explored the concept that a lot of work should be done by people who are not employees. When you think about this it’s obvious. After all, we use a lot of contractors, consultants, and gig workers who are not employees. Think a bit more deeply and you see that work can be done via alliances, automation, outsourcing, and even groups of volunteers. The reason Lead the Work is an important book is that while we may know a lot of work is done by people who are not employees, HR rarely pays attention to that part of the talent ecosystem. There is another part of the talent ecosystem that is not covered in the book: asking for favours. As we move into an all-virtual work world this method of getting work done feels more important than ever. Let’s explore how it can be of value to you.
How the economy of favours works
The economy of favours is driven by your network of trusted contacts. They trust that you are of good character, and you feel the same about them. In this context, more than anything else, good character means you are a giver, not a taker. You are asking them for a favour, which they will give because they know when someone asks you for a favour you will give as well. Note that it doesn’t have to be reciprocal. Someone in your network may be far more knowledgeable than you and you can never pay them back with advice, but they know that when some person comes to you for help, then you are the kind of character who will give freely.
The main work transactions that occur in the economy of favours are advice and connections. If you don’t know which applicant tracking system is best someone in your network will happily spend their time sharing what they know and advising what they think makes sense in your situation. If you need to get a connection with some organization (perhaps because you are looking for work) then someone in your network will introduce you.
The value of these transactions is high. A single conversation with a trusted expert about technology may be more valuable than a $50,000 consulting intervention.
The new old boys club
The old boys club is usually considered to be a bad thing because it’s seen as a way of excluding outsiders. That was never the purpose. The purpose was to build a network of people who could help each other, often with no money changing hands. It was an economy of favours, and it was built on trust. Trust leads to an efficient economy.
The interesting thing about the old boys’ club or any trust-based network is that its foundation is in individual relationships, not business-to-business connections. I won’t get a favour from a corporation, but I’ll get one from someone I know who works in that corporation.
The old boys club was extremely valuable for its members. In the new world, you can build your own club and you don’t need to be old or be a boy. The economy of favours is so casual and relaxed that participating in it may not seem like work at all. That’s misleading. It can be extremely valuable for you so you should take it seriously.
Building and leveraging your network
The secret to building your own network is authenticity and effort. Authenticity means you are connecting to people with whom you want to have a personal, not just business, relationship. You have to be genuinely interested in them as people, not just attempting to build a network for the sake of having a network. I suppose that is something of a paradox, you network best when your goal is not to network.
The effort side of the equation is more straightforward. To build a network you have to participate in groups where you can meet new people. You have to make an effort to get to know them. You have to make an effort to keep in touch. None of these steps are hard, it’s just that they are easy to skip in a busy world. You have to decide that spending 10 minutes connecting with someone in your network is more valuable than churning through a bunch of work emails.
You should also not overlook leveraging the network. When you do need advice or a connection don’t be afraid to reach out. You’ll often be amazed by the quality of insight you get.
In my work, the economy of favours has become a large element in my business. I can’t begin to guess how valuable it is; suffice it to say, I wouldn’t have a business without it. In the virtual world, it is easier than ever to connect to people beyond those in your own office. Now is a great time to work on building your network; it’s a personal asset that will compound in value over time.