Deepening relationships through contribution

A friend of mine is thinking of relocating to another city and was talking with me about finding a job there.

“Do you think my boss would let me do my job from the new location? Or maybe there’s an opening there?”

What struck me right away was that, despite the huge array of jobs in the new place, my smart, capable friend had no idea how to find one. Her instincts were to rely on the people she was already connected with – her firm, her boss, her friends and family. And that was grossly limiting the opportunities available to her.

So, almost as an experiment, we started a 12-week Working Out Loud program. Her goal was to build a purposeful network that might help her find fulfilling work. And in less than a month, to our mutual surprise, she’s created possibilities she’d never even imagined were possible.

Here’s how she’s doing it.

Two lists

Throughout the 12-week program, we keep working on two lists: a relationship list and a contribution list. The first is simply a list of people she’d like to have in her network. She’s not out to get something from these people. She’s just listing individuals relevant to her goal (or kinds of people, if she can’t find a name). The second list is a set of contributions she could offer to people in her network.

In her first week, she started by exploring, scouring Twitter and the rest of the Internet for people and companies and communities in the new location. Who’s doing things she likes? Who could she learn from? What companies she could imagine working with? Most people find this exercise easy once they get started. And, soon, my friend had her first relationship list with about 10 people on it.

Then we talked about how leading with generosity is the best way to develop relationships. But understanding all you have to offer proves to be difficult for most people. So we talked about universal assets like recognition and appreciation. And about more substantive gifts like writing up profiles of work she admired. My friend, like most people, struggled with this part.

Then we started working the lists.

Levels of intimacy

In our coaching session each week, we go through each person on the relationship list and think “What can you offer this person?” It might feel difficult at first, but it helps to think of your relationships on an intimacy scale of 0 to 5.

0 – You know them but they don’t know you exist.

1 – You’re linked in some way but without any meaningful interaction.

2 – You’ve had at least one conversation.

3 – You’ve had multiple conversations & they remember your name.

4 –  You regularly call on each other for advice or help or because you enjoy each other’s company.

5 – You’re good friends, sharing all the good & all the bad.

Deepening relationships through contribution

Deepening relationships through contribution

You’re not trying to go from 0 to 5 in one attempt. You’re simply trying, over time, to move some of your relationships along that scale. For the most part, my friend didn’t know any of the people on her list, so she started with the universal assets. If they were on Twitter, she followed them. If they wrote something online that she appreciated, she Liked it, shared it, or posted a comment.

Small things, perhaps, but she moved the relationship from 0 to 1. Then, the more she read and explored, the more reasons she had to interact or to share things she liked with different people on her list. She soon started to have a few back-and-forth sessions on Twitter.

My friend was very pleased. Some of her new connections held important positions or had big networks. It felt like she was about to open up new doors she wasn’t aware of before.

“Now what?” she said.

Working the lists

The next thing was to work more purposefully on her contributions. All the people I coach experience an interplay between their two lists. That is, the people they meet shape their contributions and their contributions shape their network. And so their contribution list, which is usually quite short at first, starts to grow.

My friend started to write more. Instead of just following or Like-ing, for example, she’d write up an experience she had (a lesson, a project) that she thought might be helpful to people on her network. Or she’d write a profile explaining why she liked the work of someone or their company. Or she’d connect different people in her growing network to each other.

The further she developed certain relationships, the more she started to develop substantive contributions she could offer others. Though she’s just started, she’s already made a wide range of connections at level 1 and 2. And one of her new relationship with an influential person at a firm she really likes is already approaching level 4. After two weeks of occasional conversations on Twitter, he’d asked her opinion on something he was struggling with and she’d sent him an in-depth answer. Now they’re Skype-ing.

“It’s like magic,” she said.

Anyone can do it

I’m excited for my friend. Every week she’s getting better at connecting people and contributions. She’s seeing more possibilities. And, by the end of the program, she’ll have developed a sustainable system for building a purposeful network and improving her chances of realizing any of her goals.

But it’s not magic.

She’s simply exhibiting the 5 elements of Working Out Loud: she’s visible, connected, generous, curious, and purposeful. And these are all ways of working that anyone can learn.

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
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21 Responses to Deepening relationships through contribution

  1. drcarstenrose says:

    Thank you John for this gorgeous post. Full stop.

  2. brigit calame says:

    Very helpful John, thank you. I think I can use this to help people benefit more from our social collaboration platform.

    • John Stepper says:

      Nice, Brigit! We, too, have tried to encourage more people to work out loud at work. We’ve met with mixed results which is what has led to the coaching program. If I can help you, let me know.

  3. Frank G says:

    Great post John! (I reserve gorgeous for a different context 😉 ) I like how you laid it out and emphasized what your friend found easy and what hard to do. This helps people can more easily to associate themselves ( at least I can ) with it and might give it a go.

    I’m happily sharing your post !

    • John Stepper says:

      Thank you, Frank. I’m hoping that anecdotes like this about what works and doesn’t work for real people will complement the more conceptual posts so I really appreciate your feedback.

  4. Michaela Shea says:

    Thanks. This is brilliant. I was telling a friend all about the concept on the weekend and he’s gone from feeling very negative about his career to realising that the sky is the limit for him. This information is very powerful for the less technical Gen X-ers!


    Michaela from Australia

    [cid:image002.jpg@01CF15BF.8EA74F20]Michaela Shea Team Leader Internal Communications
    p (07) 3035 3857 | m 0477 383 564 | f (07) 3229 7926
    [cid:image003.jpg@01CF15BF.8EA74F20] [cid:image004.jpg@01CF15BF.8EA74F20] [cid:image005.jpg@01CF15BF.8EA74F20] [cid:image006.jpg@01CF15BF.8EA74F20] [cid:image007.jpg@01CF15BF.8EA74F20]

  5. John Stepper says:

    Hello, Michaela and thanks for your comment. (I’ll take “brilliant” any day. :-)) There are about a dozen or so posts on this blog about Working Out Loud that your friend might find useful. Or tell him if he posts a question here or on Twitter I’ll gladly do my best to answer him.

    Thank you.

  6. Simple, practical AND profound. John, pure WOL and coaching excellence here. Thank you.

  7. xplorer says:

    I am a great admirer of your work and writing John and through your blog have “met” the Change Agents Worldwide network which is the model I had envisioned for a global network of Conscious Hosts (see It may sound stupid but the biggest impediment to my reaching out to experts I admire comes from a set of tapes in my head that they are too important, busy and clever to have time for a stranger. I think it’s an age and female thing – as my Millennial colleagues have no problem reaching out to anyone.

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Anna and thank you.

      Thinking the people you’d like in your network might be too busy/important/smart is not at all stupid. Actually, it’s one of the most common things I hear.

      It’s a good instinct to respect your audience, valuing their time and attention. And yet they’re just other human beings with the same universal needs and fears almost all of us have.

      Here’s a story of a friend of mine and maybe a helpful way to frame your contribution to those important people in your network.

      p.s. I really like your idea and your site. Well done!

  8. John Wenger says:

    Wonderful, concrete illustration of sociometry at work. Building and deepening purposeful relationship at work. Love it. Nice article, John.

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  10. John Stepper says:

    I was looking through Dale Carnegie’s book again (“How to Win Friends and Influence People” from 1936) and I was struck by a quote that used the same word as my friend to describe the results: “magic”.

    “People are frequently astonished at the new results they achieve. It all seems like magic.”

    What that tells me is that we’ve known about the power of relationships and networks for a long time. It’s just that it’s becoming easier, particularly in the last decade to build such relationships; to find, connect with, and develop a relationship with others who share your interests.

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