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Hello and welcome to another episode of the Duct Tape marketing agency podcast. This is John Jantsch and my guest today is David Burkus. He’s a bestselling author, speaker and associate professor of Leadership and Innovation at Oral Roberts University. He’s also the author of a book we’re going to talk about today, Friend of a Friend: Understanding the Hidden Networks That Can Transform Your Life and Your Career. So David, thanks for joining me.
David Burkus: Oh, thank you so much for having me.
John Jantsch: So how’s that university gig workout? As an author-speaker, is that a good like little side gig?
David Burkus: Yeah funny you say side gig. That’s actually exactly how I described it to a student may be about two years ago. When my second book came out, I got sort of crazy-busy in that spring season and I think I went an entire week. I’m supposed to teach Monday, Wednesday, Friday class. I think I want an entire week without seeing them just because I was running all around. And then maybe a week and a half after, one of the students was sort of pushing back on why I had been gone for so long. And he goes, “Yeah, why are you even gone? What’s that side gig thing that you do?” And I looked at him dead in the face and I said this, “This is my side gig, right? What I’m doing out there is my full-time thing.” And that’s actually been the case so that that semester everything sort of came to a head.
David Burkus: So I came to them and asked about, I’m sort of on a semi-permanent sabbatical. I teach one class a semester. I still have my appointment in time and rank and all of that kind of stuff. But I mean I don’t get paid for full-time. I get paid for the one class a semester that I teach and so it feels much more like a side gig now. Now, it’s pretty much Monday afternoons. I know where I’m going to be. I have lunch on campus and then I’m there until I teach my class that I teach at 4:30 because it’s for the MBA students and that kind of stuff. And then that’s it. And then the rest of the week, including today, I barely think about it unless someone asks me what it’s like.
John Jantsch: So this has nothing to do with your book we’re going to talk about, but I’m curious.
David Burkus: That’s fine.
John Jantsch: You as a writer, speaker, do you find that world that you play in a lot brings information to the student group or do you sometimes find that interacting with students and what they’re thinking doing, feeling brings stuff to your writing?
David Burkus: It’s probably a little bit of both. The biggest benefit that I like about it is that I get the chance to test out ideas. My background’s in organizational behavior. All of my books are very sort of social-science based. And so the real challenge as a writer is pairing that with the right case study, the right example, the right what have you. So I’m doing all of that research for a book. But then if I’m lecturing on that exact same topic, I can throw that story in, see what the reaction is, does it make sense? Does it not? Those sort of things. So having that kind of built-in test market has been really cool.
David Burkus: The other way that it’s been helpful to go the other way, and this is less of the time, but this happens as well, is I run a daily little YouTube kind of a two to three-minute tip every single weekday and a good amount of the tips. Now, the goal is to do it every single day. Now, that we’re like nine months in, you get a little dry. So a lot of student questions follow-up questions, “Well wait a minute. Why does this have to be the case?” Et cetera, then provoke ideas for, “Oh, that would be a great clip.” So let me write that down real quick. I feel bad because I teach undergrads and MBA students and we’re very sort of no technology because we don’t want you texting in the middle of class what have you. But when moments like that happen, I literally take out my phone and open up little notes file and put it in. So I feel bad because I’m clearly not practicing what I preached there. But it works.
John Jantsch: So in the subtitle, understanding the hidden networks that can transform your life and your career. Let’s define what a hidden network is.
David Burkus: Yeah. So this is a term we kind of used to describe the people in your network that a lot of us overlook, right? So most of us, I mean even when I say the word networking, most of us think it’s about converting strangers into friends or into prospects or into however we’re using the term. And so we think about our close contacts, the people that we see every day or every week, the people that we’re regularly doing business with, our current clients, all of that sort of thing. And then we think networking, we think right to those strangers. What we ignore are the people that are, the term in social sciences is weak or dormant ties, and we ignore those people that are wonder two degrees of separation out. And if you look at where a lot of the new opportunity comes in, yes strangers are going to have new information, new ideas, new potential referrals, new needs themselves that you might be able to fit, but you’ve got to sort of warm up, build rapport with them.
David Burkus: It’s that middle network, that hidden network, hidden because a lot of us are overlooking it, where there is just as many new and different pieces of information, like a total stranger, unlike your close contacts. But there is either they already know you or they know someone who knows you. They’re that friend of a friend. And so building rapport with them is a whole lot easier. So we find in that network you get a whole lot more value and I usually define networking now is just paying attention to your close contacts and those people in that hidden network, dormant ties. And people that are one or maybe two degrees of separation out from you. And if you do that well enough, you never have to go to a networking mixer or something like that ever again.
John Jantsch: Well, I think one of the challenges some folks are having with that is because, I completely agree, but I was accepting some connection requests on LinkedIn today and I noticed I have 13,000 first tier connections, which means I must have what a million-second tier connections?
David Burkus: Yeah.
John Jantsch: It’s almost like the online world theoretically made that easier, but it really made it much harder.
David Burkus: Yeah. Well I mean it did. And one of the things that we talk about right in the very in the opening chapter of the book is I pushed back on my editor a lot for writing about any technology. And I openly say in the intro, like, “I can’t teach you how to use Twitter properly, and I can’t teach you what the perfect rules for LinkedIn are,” because I’m sure you’ve guessed this too. Everybody uses it a little bit differently, and everybody has a different definition of what they count as connection. So I often say that technology should be a supplement to not a replacement for your existing face-to-face network. So my definition of connection and the one that we use in a lot of network science studies is do you know them in real life, not just forum?
David Burkus: For example, John, unfortunately, you and I, we’re still friend of a friend connections because we haven’t had that in-person thing. Everybody uses tools like that a little bit differently. The irony though is even if you shrunk it down to your connections or people that you’ve met, or you’ve worked on a project with, people that you are part of that face-to-face network, that one or two degrees of separation is still, you’re still talking about millions of people. And so learning how to kind of navigate it and ask the right questions when you go out to that network becomes a really important thing as well.
John Jantsch: I was on in the early days of social media and I do think that the initial phase was, “Get lots of followers, get lots of friends, make lots of connections, isn’t this great?” And then I think people kind of looked up and went, “Oh, crap, I can’t manage this anymore.” I think a lot of people who have really turned to that idea of, “Okay, I’m going to use LinkedIn just as you said, to really have real connections, but then make sure that it’s manageable numbers rather than just big numbers.
David Burkus: Yeah, no, I totally agree. I think everybody has to set their own rules. Because of the work that I do kind of treat LinkedIn as a platform that people can consume content that I’m putting out on there. So we put the video on there, we do articles on there and what have you. So even my rules are a little bit different, but I did a very similar thing with Facebook. Similar basically now, actually they work really, really similar, except one’s full of puppy photos and political memes and the other is full of real business stuff.
David Burkus: But I went from probably 1,800 to 2,000 contacts or friends in Facebook to less than 150. And actually, every year it’s become a joke with 150 or so that are still around. Every year I do a Christmas purge, so the day after Christmas I sit down and go through, it takes me two or three days because I don’t want to spend six hours doing it. I do a little bit at a time. But my goal is by New Year’s to have looked at everyone’s profile and asked myself the question, “Do I still want to see them in my news feed and do I still want them to see my stuff in their newsfeed?” And so I go through kind of every year and do that to treat that network that way. Because otherwise, it’s sort of overwhelming, right?
John Jantsch: Absolutely. I actually heard somebody, I thought this was interesting advice. They said that their approach was that they … You know how Facebook tells you it’s David’s birthday today? Then you through, then you go, “If I don’t want to say happy birthday to that person necessarily in person, they’re gone.” And I thought well that’s interesting.
David Burkus: Oh, I go even deeper actually, because I’ll say happy birthday to lots of people. My question is actually, “Do I want you to see pictures of my kids?” Because what happens is my first book came out before we had children. I was building the whole platform and so I was connecting with everybody, whoever, just you never know where it’s going to go type of thing. And then it wasn’t actually my first born, I didn’t notice it too much. But when my second born candidly, we spent a long time in the NICU, and we’re posting these sort of updates that are actually fairly emotional. And then a random person that saw me speak in Cleveland is typing a message on there. And I’m just sort of like, “I know you mean well, but this makes me uncomfortable,” so I’m clearly going to have to do something about this.
David Burkus: That’s become my question. I’ve heard other people do similar questions. I’m forgetting who it is, but I was talking to somebody that chooses to prune LinkedIn on the basis of, “Would I give this person $20 knowing I’m never going to get paid back?” Right. And I mean, there’s a lot of people in my life that I would be like, “Yeah, I’ll lend you $20,” knowing that. I mean, John, I’d lend you $20 knowing I’m never going to get paid back. Right? But it’s not that big. There’re not that many people in the world that I would do that for.
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Let’s talk about another concept that I think is central to this, and others have, I mean I think this has become a common sort of term in networking circles, but this idea of superconnectors.
David Burkus: What I think is interesting is they play an interesting role, and they don’t play the role we expect. So from a strict network science side, and then I’ll flip over to kind of what this means, especially for entrepreneurs. From a strict network science side, we thought that superconnectors, the people who had a disproportionate number of connections, if you were to ask everybody in industry, for example, how many people they know and you graphed it, you wouldn’t get an inverted U, you’d get a power law, you’d get an 80/20 principle, right? So 20% of the people have 80% or at least are connected to 80% of the people in a network. And we call them superconnectors. And for the longest time we thought that superconnectors, we’re the people that that kept the network together, that the people that explained that everybody is only five or six introductions away from each other.
David Burkus: I mean, we thought Kevin Bacon was a superconnector, right? Because everybody in film can be connected to him. The interesting thing is, and that’s not the case, it’s actually, I mean, again, to go back to those weak and dormant ties, every one of us has those. We’ve all changed jobs or moved to cities or what have you. So there’s so much that super nerdy term is resiliency in the network that superconnectors don’t do that. What they do is when you investigate where they come from, you find this other really interesting principle, which is the principle of preferential attachment. And that’s this idea that over time, as you gain more connections, as you’re better known inside of the network, more organic connections come to you, right? The most connected people in a community are usually going to be the ones that are most likely to meet new members into that community. Which makes sense, right? If you’re the person everybody knows you have a better chance of getting those introductions.
David Burkus: Why I like this is for your average person, whether you’re sort of a newbie-entrepreneur, or you’re somebody looking for your career, whatever you’re looking for you. We all look to those people that just seem to know everybody that seemed to get business coming. We’re struggling to come to find new clients and they’re just getting natural organic leads coming in all of the time. That’s preferential attachment at work.
David Burkus: The difference is usually they’ve put in that work for a number of years ahead of time to build up all of those contexts. It kind of explains why networking appears to be so easy to some people and why we struggle. What it also says is that it holds out the promise that if you put in the work, and you put in the intention, you can build that same thing. You can roll that snowball down the hill and get to that point as well. I don’t know that everybody can be a super connector, but everybody can leverage preferential attachment. That the more you’re being intentional about your connections and your network, the more potential new connections come in.
John Jantsch: That ties back to our weak ties, right? I mean, because one of the things I’m envisioning people thinking is, “Oh, okay, you’re right. I’ve got all these weak ties out there. I should go start selling them something. And obviously, and we’ve all gotten that email, “I’m a friend of David.”
David Burkus: Oh, I’ve gotten that LinkedIn, yeah, exactly.
John Jantsch: So how do you actually, effectively, knowing they’re there and knowing that they’re powerful, how do you effectively approach and engage them?
David Burkus: So two strategies or maybe the same strategy in a twofold thing, but that everybody can put into place. The first is to have a system where weak ties are getting regularly checked in with, right? If you haven’t talked to somebody in 18 months, it is not the right time to try, and sell them something, right? But it is the right time to let them know that you remember them, and you still care about them. And so there’s a couple of different ways you can do this. My favorite is sort of social media arbitrage. We’ve been talking about it a little bit, but that is that everyone is so overwhelmed than what you can do is find a more valuable means of communication. So you see that somebody is posting this new thing. I have a good friend that just announced on Facebook that he and his wife are expecting, right? And the guy’s got 4,000 connections. And so if I just click like or comment, that’s going to get lost.
David Burkus: So the better way to do it is you find that information that a weak tie is broadcasting, and you send them a more private message. In this case, I sent him a text message, right? And what that does is it resets what I call the clock, the stopwatch of awkwardness, right? Because the longer a period of time you go between interacting with a weak tie, the more awkward it’ll get that next time. So it resets that clock, and if that’s all you do, now you’ve built a connection to where they don’t feel awkward reaching back out to you. If you need something, you don’t feel awkward reaching out to them. So that can be three months, six months, a year. It depends on the connection, but that sort of step one.
David Burkus: And then step two is I very rarely find situations where all of those weak ties that people have assembled are perfect clients. And so I usually find that you’ve got to go into that one degree of separation out of that friend of a friend network to find that. The most common questions I coach people to ask are, “Who do you know in blank?” With blank being that industry or that city or whatever it is you’re trying to find people in. Or a similar spin on that question is, “Who do you know that’s at blank?” Which is basically a stage of life. So for example, I mean, and this is a terrible example, but if you sold cars, right. The wrong question to ask is, “who do you know that’s looking for a car?” Because everybody’s going to feel weird. But if you ask, “Who do you know that is expecting a new child?” Because that means you’re going to have to rethink your car situation, right?
David Burkus: Or even in business, “Who do you know that is growing their business rapidly, and is at that point where there’re certain systems that they can’t really just do on pen and paper anymore?” “Oh, well, we sell this CRM system,” or whatever it is. You find a way to ask, “Who do you know in,” that is in a certain stage. And then if you’re the solution stage, that can be a potential referral. The reason I like, “Who do you know?” Is that it gives you usually a list of two or three names and this is really key. It gives you a list of two or three names that that person would be comfortable introducing you to. Because if they wouldn’t be comfortable introducing you to them, they’ll just not list them in those names. And that works a whole lot more effectively than sort of LinkedIn stalking a prospective client. And then trying to trace your way back to find the right introduction to them. That’s just an awkward mess.
John Jantsch: Well, and I actually think you do that person a favor too. I get these all the time, and I’m like, “I don’t know.” They’re like, “Let me know if there’s any way I can help you.” these requests on LinkedIn. And I was like, “Well, I don’t know what you do. I don’t know who you are. I have no way that I can tell you how you could help me.” And I think that’s a lot of times when people aren’t specific about a way in which they could do something or what they’re actually looking for. I think now the universe is potential and I think that makes it tough.
David Burkus: Yeah. Oh, I totally agree. And so when you cut it into, “Okay, this is the type of person I’m looking for, a prospective client, new hire.” I have a lot of people that do this with companies, “I’m looking to work at this company. Who do you know that that works there or works in that industry to at least get me closer?” It’s a good way to throw that question out, and it’s less vague. And I think it goes the other way too with us. Right? So the weirdest thing about that, “How can I help you question,” is like, “Whatever I say, the odds that you’re going to have that knowledge, skill or ability are really small,” but you might know somebody who does, right? I have a friend who was having a baby. I don’t know anything about having a baby, but I’ve got a friend who’s a prenatal doctor like, “If you need someone to talk to you about vitamins, I can connect to you.”
John Jantsch: One of the problems, of course, that I think we probably don’t recognize. And this isn’t just a network, I mean this happens in your community and that is the concept of homophily. Did I say that right?
David Burkus: Yes. Yeah.
John Jantsch: And the idea that you tend to hang around with that are like you and think like you and look like you and that’s not always a good thing. And, in fact, used our last presidential election is kind of a way to illustrate that.
David Burkus: Yeah, people love to hate that part of the … Well, no, I mean really, regardless of how you feel. And I’ll put this out there and even this we’re going to get angry letters about, so I apologize, regardless of how you feel about any of the four candidates. Right. Well, I won’t even limit this to two the consensus by a lot of people now two years out looking at that election is that Hillary Clinton lost that election more than Donald Trump won it. Right. And there’s a lot of jokes about ignoring Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania. Ironically, these are the Michael Moore states. These are the states that 12 months before the actual election, Michael Moore was warning people about saying that if you shifted too far to the coast in the big cities, and you’re ignoring that kind of rust belt union vote that normally goes blue, it’ll flip red.
David Burkus: And that’s kind of precisely what happened from the campaign headquarters in Brooklyn. The team had models that said we’re going to win Michigan … We don’t have to go to Wisconsin and we’re going to win Wisconsin. And that didn’t happen. And that’s one example and it was a salient example and it was me attempting to hit a nerve of emotions, so people talk about that example. But history is full of that. Business history is full of executives making terrible decisions because they had limited information. We go back into further presidential history, we have things like the Bay of Pigs and the entire sort of groupthink fiasco that came out of that. And the reason is quite simply that homophily idea. That it’s not just that we like people who are similar to us. In fact, that’s actually the smaller part of it.
David Burkus: The big part of it is those new connections. Most of us aren’t intentional. Most of us are just organic about how we make new connections and how we meet new people. And the problem is that those people are going to be really similar to the people we already know. So unless we’re intentionally looking for people that are different from us, the network is not going to serve them to us. We could be out there thinking, “I’m really connected, so I clearly have all of this information,” and not realize that we’re ignoring whole segments of our target population.
John Jantsch: I had a friend, or a connection request on LinkedIn the other day, and it said that we had 675 mutual connections. I had absolutely no idea who this person was. I mean, how is that possible?
David Burkus: Well, I mean again, if you look at the research. We like to joke about six degrees of separation, but it’s been proven multiple times. I’ve never seen a study done through LinkedIn, although ironically they should do this. In Facebook that the 2 billion people that are members of Facebook are connected by four. It’s 4.2 potential introductions on average. Right? So I actually think of that not as, because depending on your reaction to the story I just told you may or may not want to be six introductions away from the president. But I look at it is that idea that the network is so vast and interconnected that there are millions, tens of millions. Pretty much everyone that is in your professional network or that’s going to have an influence on your career these days is either a friend already, or they’re a friend of a friend and that’s good news if you can do it with some intentionality and authenticity. If you’re trying to be that kind of weirdo spammer, I think it’s actually bad news because people are going to get tired of your thing faster.
John Jantsch: So you’ve already kind of bashed the idea of networking mixers, and I’ve not played in that pool for a long, long time. And so I don’t even know if they’re that popular, but I really loved your, I don’t think it was a whole chapter, but this idea of a different way instead of just going and saying, “Hi, I’m David, nice to meet you.” This idea of sharing activities. I think that’s actually, to me probably my favorite part of the book about how to, and it wouldn’t even just be networking. I mean, I think that’s just a better way may be to meet friends?
David Burkus: Oh, well, I agree, but I’m also kind of the opinion now that everyone, even professional contacts we should put in the friend bucket anyway. Right. So yeah, shared activities, I mean the gist of it is that we know from research and human behavior that people don’t actually mix at these mixers, The networking hour at that conference, the meetup that you saw advertised. And so you showed up to it. I mean literally sort of speed networking things. People spend most of their time with people that they already know. And even when they’re meeting new people, they usually stick to a script of who are you and what do you do? And then immediately try, and figure out are your prospect or can I help you? Or that sort of thing. And because of that, we don’t really get to understand them multi-facets of people.
David Burkus: And so these shared activities, a shared activity is a term coined by Brian Uzzi and Sharon Dunlap that deals with specific activities that draw diverse sets of new people where there’re three components to it. Where there is an objective other than just knowing people. So in the book, we talk about dinner parties, and the idea that you can cook together. That’s one objective. I was just working with a group last week that really sees their charity work, so they have a Habitat for Humanity. They plan a 5K, all of that as shared activities that draw people from throughout the company. It can be anything where there is that objective.
David Burkus: That objective requires interdependence, so one person can’t do all of the work and then there are stakes to not achieving that objective. That gets people sort of emotionally involved. They have to be involved, they have to be interdependent in order to achieve that objective. And what we find is you build deeper relationships faster with someone. When you put all of that Who are you and what do you do perfect elevator’s pitch stuff to the side, and you focus in on that objective. You end up having different conversations. Conversations where you find the fancy term is uncommon commonalities with people. Stuff that you have in common with them that you never would have expected, and you end up meeting people that are more different than you. Then you would meet if you were just at this networking event, trusting your script to lead you to the right person.
John Jantsch: Yeah, and I mean that can be Comic-Con.
David Burkus: Yeah.
John Jantsch: You know what I mean? You find these people that you never would meet anywhere else, but you have this shared connection. And I think there’s so much more potential in that going beyond the sort of, “I’ve got my armor up,” that happens at a networking event.
David Burkus: Oh, no, I mean, it’s not Comic-Con, but my weird esoteric fact is I’ve trained in Brazilian Jujitsu as a martial art for the last 14 years. And when you find someone, even if like you’re getting the weirdest vibe from them ever, and then you find out that you have that in common, suddenly you’re like, “Oh,” now you’re friends. Right? The only thing I can compare it to is if you’ve ever traveled to a foreign country, and you hear an American accent, even if they’re from Texas and you’re from New York, it’s suddenly like, “Oh, we have this thing in common,” and it only matters because it’s uncommon compared to the people around you.
John Jantsch: David, where can people find out more about Friend of a Friend and your work? I know you’ve got the book on your site.
David Burkus: Yeah, well I have it on my site, but I’ll tell you if you listen to this show, the best place to find out more about it as the show notes for this episode. Because we’ll link to all that and John wants you to go to those anyway. My website’s davidburkus.com but the easiest thing to do is do want John wants and check out the show notes for this episode because he wants to know you care.
John Jantsch: Man, can you come in the last five minutes of every podcast episode that I [inaudible 00:24:50]? Can I do that because sometimes I even forget to ask? We will definitely have it in the show notes. We love those reviews. We want you to buy David’s book. How’s that?
David Burkus: I love it. Love it. That’s perfect. You plug my book. I’ll plug your show notes and leave a rating and review. It helps them spread the word about the show, and it helps them know you’re listening.
John Jantsch: Yeah, absolutely. And I went to University of Kansas and did you go to Oral Roberts or is that?
David Burkus: I went as an undergrad at Robertson. I went to grad school at the University of Oklahoma. So we have seen each other on the field of play many times.
John Jantsch: Well, and I think our basketball coach did a stint at Oral Roberts. Didn’t Bill Self coach at Oral Roberts?
David Burkus: Yes, he did.
John Jantsch: It’s kind of where you got to start, I think, isn’t it?
David Burkus: Yeah. Yeah.
John Jantsch: And then he went back over at Oklahoma State, I think, where he was an undergrad.
David Burkus: Yep.
John Jantsch: Enough of that nonsense. David, was great catching up with you and hope to see you as soon out there on the road in real life so that I can actually be considered part of your network.
David Burkus: There you go. I love it. I love it. I hope that happens soon too. Will talk to you again soon.