How to perfect the art of give and take

April 3, 2020

Some people love being helpful and derive value in seeing others succeed.

I had lunch with a lawyer friend last week. She’s the friendliest, most helpful lawyer in town. Everyone goes to her for advice, which raised the question: “Do you ever feel exploited?”

On Tuesday my phone rang. It was an old acquaintance who runs events. Every time he comes to Sydney, he wants to get coffee. These meetings usually revolve around him bleeding me for every contact in my book. I hesitate before answering. Do I have the time for this today?

This got me thinking about the concept of “value exchange”. In my career, people have been incredibly generous.

I wouldn’t have been able to build businesses or raise capital without advice, introductions and generosity from a lot of people, from junior assistants to CEOs of major companies. Most of them provided much more value to me than I’ve given back to them.
But are there rules for value exchange? When you repeatedly ask someone for advice or introductions, is there an expectation that you’ll return the favour, if asked? When I provide value to others, what do I expect back?
At Zambesi, we used to send out weekly email newsletters to promote our workshops and corporate training. Every time I’d hit send on these emails, I felt like a salesperson. I knew they weren’t engaging and that people would unsubscribe. I tried different layouts and writing styles, but couldn’t escape the thought that my core message was spam.

One of our consultants, Tim Doyle, who runs marketing and strategy at Koala Mattress, told me: “Every interaction with your customer should be a value exchange. If you expect people to give you time to open and read your email newsletter, then you need to provide some value back.”

He suggested we create high-value articles that help our customers learn, and promote these instead of advertising courses. “If people feel like they get genuine value when they engage with your marketing, then they’ll be more likely to give you the time to consider your product.”

Everyone will want to position themselves at different points on the value exchange spectrum. Some people love being helpful and derive value in seeing others succeed. I often question whether I should have coffee with everyone who asks in order to pay back the support I’ve received from others. But with a young family and fledgling business, I just don’t have the time.

Don’t be a ‘user’

It’s hard to evaluate the correct amount of value to exchange. As I ponder this conundrum, I’ve come up with some ideas.

“I wouldn’t have been able to build businesses or raise capital without advice, introductions and generosity from a lot of people.” Sally Elford / Alamy Stock Photo

My lawyer friend’s answer to the question about whether she felt exploited was: “Yes.” She described a recent event in Brisbane. “I was asked to speak at this event to help start-up founders. The organisers charged for tickets but didn’t offer to pay me anything or even cover the cost of my flights. I didn’t mind much because I like to support the entrepreneurs. But it hurt when the organiser didn’t promote my firm and actually recommended another lawyer to the group!”

She believes in paying it forward, but admits that sometimes people take advantage. “They’ll come in for free advice on strategy or capital raising over and over again. They’ll ask for feedback on their deck or introductions to investors, but then use a friend or family member for legal support.”

I should point out that this person loves to be of service, and in her experience “there are only 50 bad examples for every million good ones”.

My point is to be aware of your value exchange in every relationship. If someone is doing favours for you, then it’s nice to show loyalty in return.

Give as you take

Some years ago, Scott Farquhar at Atlassian was generous enough to take me out to lunch and give me some advice on building technology. He recommended three books and set up an introduction to a colleague.

I made sure that I ordered and read all three books and met with his colleague, who was also incredibly helpful. And I wrote back to Scott with notes on each book and a summary of what I’d achieved through the introduction.

Very successful people often get value for themselves by helping others. But they’ll only experience a sense of contribution if you actually use their help. It’s frustrating to give lots of time to someone who doesn’t listen or doesn’t take action.

Be aware of your position on the value exchange

There are unspoken value-exchange transactions going on all the time. Transactions between you and other individuals, between businesses and their customers, and between you and the karmic bank of professional interactions.

Deposits and withdrawals are monitored and it’s always best to be in the black. In my experience, helping people feels great, and unexpected good things can come from the connections you make.

Originally published in AFR BOSS Magazine

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