While garnering social capital has always been essential to internal corporate collaboration, it has become even more critical for every hybrid employee, remote-working person, or solo entrepreneur today. Simply having the skills to do a particular job is no longer sufficient because our hybrid offices have made many people invisible. Your ability to partner with team members, make an impression, network in your industry, and stay ripe for opportunities depends on the strength of your professional relationships and communication skills.
Just like any other currency, social capital can be earned, invested, and spent. When it comes to your professional longevity, there is no greater fortune than your worth in social capital. So how much do you have in your bank?
What Social Capital Is and How I Leveraged It
Earning social capital is dependent on our ability to work together effectively by having a shared set of values and working toward a common goal. In a corporate environment, it makes employees more collaborative, but for remote employees, solo entrepreneurs, or members of the gig economy, it is non-negotiable to success. Couple that with the challenges of a hybrid or remote work environment, and it is the difference between being considered for an opportunity, ruled out, or completely forgotten.
When I left my 17-year corporate career at a luxury brand to pursue consulting, I went from being a member of a large corporate office to working remotely and independently. Without my executive title and the credibility of being employed by a well-known retail group, I could only lean on myself when pursuing new business. My nearly two decades of accrued social capital bolstered my ability to have my calls returned and my emails responded to.
I understood the value of staying connected to my network and showing a genuine interest in their careers while sharing my future ambitions for consulting projects. I checked in on important contacts to inquire how they were and what they were working on during a time when I didn’t need to ask for anything. I sought them out on social media to amplify and support their content shares and to keep my name top of mind. When it was time to pitch ideas or ask for favors, I wrote persuasive emails expressing my request and offering support in return. I valued people’s time and made sure to write succinctly and directly. I have always believed that being accessible makes you indispensable, so I stayed on top of my inbox to guarantee my responsive communication was swift. I knew being readily available for whatever came my way was vital. If my outreach met silence, I followed up again appropriately within a week.
Once I confirmed a project, I knew it was my job to communicate proactively. As a remote consultant, I needed to let management know that I was abreast of my work while also making meaningful connections with the team I was working with. In addition, that ensured that I received up-to-the-minute information. When you are not physically present, it is easy for others to forget they need to communicate directives beyond their four walls. I needed to stay on people’s radars and demonstrate reliability. A good result with one client would naturally lead to a subsequent referral.
The same issues can also affect a corporate remote employee. When you don’t have the luxury of proximity, it’s easy to get left behind and feel a sense of loneliness. Remote employees need to make a greater effort to actively participate in the company culture than people physically in the office. That means they, too, need to communicate proactively and sometimes overcommunicate, while also making a concerted effort to have virtual coffees with teammates.
Hybrid employees that straddle in-person and remote life typically have the bulk of the meeting load crammed into their in-office days. That requires them to balance their relationship-building efforts and focus on more than just the colleagues they physically see.
The Skills and Values Needed to Build Social Capital
What makes one person accrue social capital versus another? It comes down to your principles, work ethic, and, sometimes, your ability to organize yourself.
If you have strong principles and a steadfast work ethic, you naturally want to do right by someone. You want to complete that task no matter what it takes because you committed to it, and not following through would hurt you as much as it would disappoint someone else. I believe your word should mean something. When you say you’re going to do something, following through is tallied and judged on your professional scorecard. Even so, if you’re working to improve your executive functioning (organizing, prioritizing, etc.) or your skills in managing yourself, drafting a to-do list might not be sufficient. Instead, consider making meetings with yourself to block the time for each task on your calendar. This can help you accomplish what you need to in the assigned timeframe and will support you in delivering on your word.
Despite the clear benefit in doing what you say you will, how many times has someone promised you that they would make an introduction for you but then ghosted? Can you count how often someone owed you something that was done incompletely or past a deadline? There are way too many instances to count. The risk of unfulfilled promises is that when you fail to deliver, you become labeled as someone who is unreliable.
Conversely, I’m sure you can easily name the people you know you can count on and who earn the covetable reputation of consistently being great to work with. You are confident these people can deliver whatever you ask of them well and on time. Because of this, you are likely to call on them repeatedly. You will think about these people even when they are not in the room. In doing so, they have earned social capital with you.
Unlike money, which can compound when left alone if appropriately invested, social capital can only be sustained with connection and relationship maintenance. A once-positive reputation can become negative if an effort is not made to sustain it. Take work references, for example. You can’t assume someone who vouched for your work several years ago would go out on a limb for you today if you haven’t put in the effort to maintain that relationship. Social capital can expire, and if you are not careful, you might find yourself checking your bank account one day and discovering a zero balance.
Follow these five tips to make sure you’re maintaining this positive regard in every relationship you navigate, especially when you are not face-to-face:
1. Be gracious with your time.
If you are on a team, raising your hand to support someone else’s project or going beyond the scope of your role to help others will make you an invaluable and memorable colleague. It is how people establish a collaborative reputation and often get identified for internal mobility. If you have a goal to one day move into a different department of your organization, proactively doing this can yield powerful results.
For independent contractors, no one wants to work for less than they are worth or for free, and most people cannot afford to, but sometimes it’s strategic and acceptable to do so. For example, if you know that working with this client will add credibility and valuable experience to your business, and is likely to signal to other clients that you do good work, it might be worth it. Even so, this is not something you want to do as a regular practice. Always weigh the pros and cons.
When you do something as a favor for someone when necessary, you have taken your first step in building social capital with that person. Furthermore, doing so, especially to gain experience in an area where you may need expertise, effectively fills that skillset void. Negotiating a testimonial as part of your fee is strategic and acceptable. It can build your credibility and be a valuable asset on your website or secure a referral in the future.
2. Communicate strategically and with intention.
The most critical factor to success when you’re behind a screen is ensuring your communication is written to inspire action. First, consider your timing. Whether you’re sending a pitch, catching up on email, or sending updates on projects, make sure you’re considering where your colleagues are. Just because you don’t mind emailing after hours doesn’t mean others do or can. Or perhaps you are in a different time zone. Send or schedule your emails to be delivered within your shared working hours to increase your odds of real-time response.
Second, your words need to connect with the reader. That begins with understanding who you are addressing. Often, people forget to consider their audience. They focus on what they want to say and ignore who is on the other side. Do some research to understand the recipient’s experience or point of view. If you are pitching an idea, it is always beneficial to understand what has been done before and what they might be looking for.
When setting expectations, make sure your words are backed by action. Accurately assess your capabilities and deliver on that. Or better yet, exceed expectations. Make your words mean something.
3. Track your efforts.
As your career progresses, keeping track of your network inside and outside the company becomes increasingly complex, primarily if you work remotely. While it may take slightly more effort, maintaining a spreadsheet of your networking interactions and referrals will be tremendously valuable. Not only will this assist you in relationship management; it will support you in connecting the dots between people. For example, if an introduction from a friend resulted in a new client, you will want to remember who to thank in the future. It will also help you monitor when it is time to follow up with people.
4. Stay on top of your inbox.
“Inbox zero” is a lofty goal for many, but managing all your forms of communication will allow you to take advantage of every opportunity. Utilize tools like inbox labels and filters to help organize yourself. Being a speedy responder shows people you are efficient and reliable. In a world inundated with messaging coming from every direction, being quick to respond is a superpower and is valued dearly. If colleagues know you are accessible, you will become someone known as “good to work with.” While everyone needs work-life balance, quickly scrolling through your emails after hours just to ensure nothing critical came in could mean the difference between putting out a fire or jumping on an opportunity. This is especially important if you work with people across time zones.
If you’re difficult to get in touch with, the opposite holds. You may become labeled as someone who cannot be depended on and may be passed over for opportunities. It’s best practice to ensure that people are responded to within a reasonable amount of time (ideally no longer than two business days). Even if you don’t have the answer yet, letting someone know that you’re working on it will give them peace of mind that their email was in fact received. In addition, and as a gentle reminder, if you communicate with team members on tech tools like Slack, remember that your teammates can see when you are actively online or not.
5. Be generous and practice gratitude.
Lending unsolicited support and amplifying another person’s efforts go a long way. It is also never too late to thank someone for an opportunity. There is no expiration date on gratitude. Thanking someone is also an underrated way to get back in touch. In addition, if you are someone who reaches out to your network to ask how they are while asking for nothing — or even better, to offer support and take a sincere interest in what they are doing — you will find yourself flush with social capital. A simple way to do this is to say, “Your name popped into my head today, and I wanted to reach out to see how you are.”
Remember that your credentials can’t speak for themselves; they need to be bolstered by the relationships that you are fostering along the way. Your social capital ensures your professional longevity, especially when you are not physically present. For any type of professional, your connections are as meaningful as what you know and the skills you have. Even from afar, the most significant opportunities will always stem from your trusted reputation.