Founder & Chief Curator of The Room — Fred Swaniker — on the 4 steps of relationship building

At a cocktail event, there’s a reason why the unassuming person with access to the most wealth in the room wants to follow up with you over anyone they met that evening. It’s not because you were the best dressed, the life of the party or how intelligent you sounded. It all came down to one thing — a genuine, human connection. We recently caught up with our chief curator and one of Time 100’s most influential people, Fred Swaniker on his disdain for the word “networking” and his principles on relationship building. This trait has seen him build a global community that has supported him over the past 15 years in his quest to develop 3million entrepreneurial leaders for Africa by 2035.

Your work with developing Africa’s next generation of leaders is well documented — what has been a driving factor that has made your achievements a reality?

I would say it has been the network of relationships we have established. I would emphasise “relationships” because today on social media, it’s so easy to call someone a “friend.” We live in a world today where we are overconnected and under-related. I have always focused on building relationships. Relationships are long term, take time and are built on trust. I believe that no matter how excellent your skills are if you don’t have access to the right relationships, you won’t have as much impact as you could. My partners, mentors, investors and advisors have helped us solve challenges and open doors that have allowed us to survive, grow and succeed. None of that would have been possible if it wasn’t for deep relationships we have built.

I wanted to dig a bit deeper into how you engage deeply instead of broadly. What are the principles behind building those relationships?

When I look back on my most meaningful relationships, they typically follow the same arc in their development. This arc happens in four phases:

  1. The connection

All relationships start with what I call “the connection” — that spark that you feel when you meet someone really interesting at dinner, through an introduction or via a chance encounter. Some people call this chemistry — that thing that intrigues you about the other person, and makes you curious enough to want to develop a relationship further. As a result of this connection, you might exchange business cards, email addresses or phone numbers. There is usually a promise/expectation to follow up on both sides. However, in my experience, only a tiny fraction of those connections move to the next phase.

2. Continuous interaction

In this phase we begin interacting with each other on a continuous basis. We send each other emails, send WhatsApp messages, meet for coffee, lunch, and generally engage back and forth. It’s crucial that the connection is mutual. If you find yourself doing all the ‘chasing’ then this is clearly not a relationship the other person is interested in, it’s probably best to leave things alone.

3. Trust

The next phase, which only comes after several months (or in some cases, years!) of continuous interaction, is ‘Trust”. Trust comes from a combination of integrity, consistency and delivery. It only develops when someone has shown that they’re a person of their word, are consistent in behaviour, and just deliver. You begin to trust someone (and they begin to trust you) when you see concrete, repeated evidence that backs up what they claim about themselves. For example, I never trust someone who says they are building a huge organization, but yet I never meet anyone else on their team. I need to see that person surrounded by other ‘legit’ people.

It’s important to recognize that trust is built extremely slowly. For example, some of my biggest financial supporters today started a decade ago by simply making introductions to just a few of their contacts. Only after hearing good things from the people, they introduced me to, would they trust me to connect me with others in their network where the stakes were higher.

Phase 3 is really about showing that you’re a doer with integrity and can be trusted to deliver with excellence. The world is full of talkers and not enough doers. People want to see that you’re the latter.

4.Collaboration

Only once you have reached the stage of ‘Trust’, do you move to the final stage of relationship-building, which is Collaboration. In this final stage, you agree to do something longer term with each other. Perhaps that person becomes a co-founder if you’re an entrepreneur. They join your board, invest in your enterprise, become your big customer, etc. This collaboration also takes baby steps, with increasing trust at each stage. When I look back on my journey, many of my financial supporters first trusted me with a very small sum of money and watched what I did with it. Once they saw that I met or exceeded their expectations, then their trust would increase and they would support me with more funding. As a result, we have today secured about $600m in funding. Yet we started with a seed investment of just $30,000 from one investor 15 years ago. Most of my backers have been with me for 10–20 years, and all started by trusting me with something small before they doubled down. Almost everyone went through these ‘baby steps of collaboration.

What are common mistakes people make?

The biggest mistake I’ve seen people make is focusing on transactions instead of relationships. They move immediately to ‘collaboration’ without going through the prior three phases. They just meet someone and immediately ask them to do something that requires significant trust. For example, they might say “Invest in my venture, join my board or speak at my conference”. You can’t just ask someone to put their reputation (or their cash!) on the line for you when they don’t trust you yet. So start with building the relationship. No matter how desperate you are. You will shoot yourself in the foot if you move too fast before the other side of the relationship is ready to progress to phase 2, phase 3, and so on.

I really dislike the word “networking”, and I like to think of myself as a relationship builder. Networking is very transactional, and relationship building is much longer term. For instance, at a cocktail event, you will normally find me focused on one person at a time instead of flitting around from person to person as the ‘life of the party’. If I start chatting with someone, I’m not trying to measure that person’s value to me. I build relationships for the sake of it. In fact, I find that 90% of the people I engage with don’t go beyond phase 1 of the ‘connection’. That’s completely okay. I really believe that life is about who you spend it with, so building relationships for relationship's sake makes life so much richer.

We would love to hear some stories from your experience on how you have applied these principles in your journey.

Holding back from the ask

As an entrepreneur, one of the most significant challenges is managing cash. I have had moments where I was really close to running out of cash, and on one occasion I met a billionaire who could have easily solved that problem. During our first meeting, it was tempting to rush to phase four and ask for money. But, I knew I would not be successful because I hadn’t established trust yet. I had to hold back as I went through the lunch meeting, and as the person talked through their long term interests, I realised our interests were far apart and that there was no mutual benefit — if I had asked for money, I would have ruined a potential relationship. However, because I took time and established trust with this person, I was introduced to someone else in their network who did end up being one of my largest supporters.

Everyone in the room is worth talking to

I went to a lunch event in Silicon Valley that was attended by one of the wealthiest women in the world. As soon as she walked in, everyone swarmed around her and tried to talk to her. Deciding not to join in the frenzy, I found a table with an empty seat next to an unassuming lady I didn’t recognise. We started talking, and soon after, I realised that she ran a family foundation backed by one none other than Sergei Brin, one of the co-founders of Google (who was worth over $30 billion)! Her story was remarkable, she had started as a nanny with the Brin family and had established trust with them. So once they had set it up, they asked her to run their family foundation. So here we were; while others flocked to the famous billionaire trying to pitch transactions, I was quietly sitting beside the woman who had access to the most wealth in the room. All because I had focused on just getting to know her; not on a transaction. Even though we had a brief connection it wasn’t deep enough for either of us to follow up with each other.

But this story reminded me of two lessons, 1) don’t chase people because you think you can get something out of them. Connections have to be authentic. Besides her connection to the wealthiest person in Silicon Valley, there was no real reason for me to follow up with this lady. 2) Be authentic — the fact that I started a genuine conversation led me to connect with this incredible person who everyone would have wanted to sit next to if they knew that she ran Sergey Brin’s foundation. It was a powerful reminder to take time to build authentic relationships because you never know where they will take you.

What would you say are the absolute don’ts when it comes to relationship-building?

1) Don’t rush to the collaboration phase before going through the other three phases 2.) Don’t think short term 3.) Don’t force something the other person will not benefit from as well. Collaboration has to be mutually beneficial. 4) Don’t ignore the subtle signals and unspoken words — sense check if they trust you by their actions before forging ahead, and if they don’t — it’s okay. 5) Finally, don’t take it personally. There are many great people in the world. So if there is no match, move on. We live in a world of abundance, and if you invest in relationships and more importantly, deliver on what you say you’re going to do, you will find opportunities beyond your wildest dreams.

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Fred Swaniker, Founder &Chief Curator of The Room and CEO of the African Leadership Group

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