If you take your smarts and your intelligence and do nothing but sit in a dark room and think about how bright you are, then obviously nothing is going to come of them. But if you take your smarts and your intelligence and use them to the benefit of people around you, the relationships you build will propel you toward your goals. Likely, you won’t find yourself traveling in a straight line; but, even with twists and turns, you’ll get there.
While I was still in college, I worked in technical support for a startup company named Netline. Everyone in the company was busting their guts to make this little leading-edge technology business work, and we had advanced to the point where we had attracted the attention of a billionaire who was coming to see if he wanted to invest in the company.
The day before he was to arrive, we set up a demo wall and prepared everything needed to show him the technology. I was just a peon in this company, but as I was getting ready to leave that night, I noticed our cement floor had not been swept or mopped, and the place was filthy. We were a startup, and we were so focused on the technology that those small details were overlooked. But I guess I had learned enough from my mother to feel embarrassed to have this incredibly successful businessman see our offices looking as they did.
So I drove home and got my wife, and we went back and cleaned the building. As it happened, everyone was gone by the time we started, and the next day I didn’t feel any need to point out what we had done.
We made our presentation to the businessman, he was impressed with the technology, and the company got the funding it needed. As we celebrated, there was a buzz about who had cleaned the building; and even though I didn’t say anything, someone figured out who had corrected a glaring oversight. As simple as my contribution was, it created relationship capital with the vice-president of marketing, who asked me to be his technician. Before long, he was promoting me within the company and inviting me to travel with him to trade shows.
I didn’t have much mental capital at that point, but—without even intending to do so—I formed relationships that have lasted for years, simply by knowing which end of a broom to hold onto.
Several years ago I traveled to Lake Tahoe to deliver a lecture. Before the appointed time, I had the opportunity to meet with a group of about twenty young entrepreneurs from Canada who had asked if I’d spend an hour with them answering questions on starting businesses.
We had a delightful exchange, and, as we got to the end of our time together, they asked me what they could do to help me. Not thinking anything about it, I said something like, “Oh, everything’s good. Thanks for the offer.” As I was heading to the presentation I had come to make, one of my associates told me we had misplaced the handouts we were going to use. He was a little panicked and was hoping we could find a copy machine in time to make new copies.
The next thing that I knew, Ernistina, one of the young Canadians, had gathered her team together. They figured out where to make the photocopies and then took the time to hand them out to the group of people who were gathered in the lecture hall. Because of her awareness and service, the event went off without any glitches and was a success. I was so grateful to Ernistina that I instantly invited her to a seminar we were teaching on entrepreneurship. We, of course, waived the tuition and even helped with her travel expenses.
Ernistina certainly hadn’t met with me with the plan that she could then turn her energies toward making photocopies, and I can only assume that she had other things to do after we finished our discussion. But by being willing to serve me, she was able to expand her relationship capital considerably. And I was able to make a new friend.