The Magic of Paying It Forward
By Julie Norwell
Broadway actor Claybourne Elder is a compelling example of the magic of paying it forward. While visiting New York City as a twenty-something year old, Claybourne went to see “Putnam County Spelling Bee.” He could just afford standing-room-only tickets, but enjoyed himself immensely, nonetheless. After the show, a man approached Claybourne and said, “You looked like you were having more fun than the people in the expensive seats. Go buy yourself a ticket to ‘Sweeney Todd’ tomorrow. It’ll change your life.” Then he handed Claybourne $200 and left, pausing only long enough for a quick photo.
In fact, it was that random act of kindness that changed Claybourne’s life. It motivated him to move to New York City to pursue an acting career. Fifteen years later, Claybourne, now a successful actor, honored the stranger’s gesture by offering two free tickets to a show in which he was playing. He advertised them on his social media page along with the wonderful backstory and the photo he’d taken years earlier.
Then, something surprising happened. Claybourne’s story, in turn, inspired others to donate money to the cause. Before long, he had raised over $10,000. He was giving away so many donated tickets that he launched a formal charity to streamline the process. Hundreds of people attended Broadway shows who otherwise could not have afforded tickets.
To his delight, Claybourne also got the chance to reunite with his former benefactor. Although he had not gotten the stranger’s name, a friend recognized the man in the photo and arranged a meeting. That stranger was Mark Howell, who was astounded to learn of the ripple effect of an act of kindness that he barely remembered doing.
This story is heartwarming and remarkable. But it’s remarkable less because of the events themselves than because we know how they unfolded. It’s unusual to be able to trace how a simple gesture flourishes into a bounty of goodwill. In reality, though, such acts of kindness occur all the time – in work as in life – with few noticing. They are often forgettable to the initiator but consequential to the recipient.
Paying back kindnesses isn’t always feasible. But paying them forward is – and it’s a practice that should be part of every executive’s ethos.
Adopt a Giver’s Mentality
“Paying it forward” is a social concept involving helping others to rise, either altruistically or in response to favors received. It can take many forms: a mentorship, referrals, or just simple acts of kindness. The gesture can be in either the professional or personal sphere. In the context of your career, it can yield substantial benefits.
Paying it forward contributes to a robust professional network that is built on genuine relationships rather than transactional interactions. Moreover, it cultivates a culture of goodwill and reciprocity that often serves you well in the long-term. Those you assist are likely to remember your generosity and may offer help or opportunities to you when you least expect it.
As you become known as a person who adds value to others, you not only enhance your reputation but also foster trust and collaboration. This intangible asset is called social capital. Over time, your social capital becomes a form of career security, opening doors to opportunities that might otherwise have remained closed. In essence, paying it forward is an investment in a personal and professional ecosystem from which you, too, will benefit.
It’s important, however, to have the right mentality when paying it forward. Reciprocity shouldn’t be your mindset going in! Adopt a giver’s approach. That is, always be giving. Look for opportunities to help others every day, year-round. Eventually, it will become a habit.
Establishing the habit is critical. You don’t want to be seen as reaching out to your network only when you need something. That’s poor form!
“It’s a lot harder to take from the pot if you haven’t contributed to it,” says Peter Irish, CEO of The Barrett Group. “People are far more inclined to help you if you’ve already put something into the relationship. People who pay it forward have learned this crucial lesson. Paying it forward has a way of paying us back.”
Start with Gratitude
People who aren’t in the habit of paying it forward may struggle to get started. It helps to start with gratitude. According to University of California Professor Robert Emmons, the feeling of gratitude inspires in us the desire to give something in return.
First, reflect on all the ways that others have helped you in your career. No matter what stage you are at in your career, you didn’t get there on your own. Someone along the way offered you guidance, provided useful information, made a referral, or opened a door to an opportunity. Such courtesies are ideal to extend to those in your network.
Paying it forward gestures can also be very small. Take note of all the low-profile ways people boost you throughout your week. Perhaps someone invited you out for coffee, complimented your work, sent you an interesting article to read, or noticed how busy you were and offered to assume one of your tasks. Sure, buying someone a cup of coffee isn’t lifechanging. But it builds relationships, which are the scaffolding of social capital.
Never underestimate the value of maintaining connections. It builds social capital – even if all you do it catch up – and it creates opportunities to pay it forward. At a minimum, studies show, it will invigorate you and your contacts psychologically much more than you think it will. (Really!)
If calling people you haven’t spoken to in years intimidates you, the New York Times has a solution. As part of its “7-Day Happiness Challenge,” it touts “The Secret Power of the 8-Minute Phone Call.” Send a text to someone you want to reconnect with asking to schedule an eight minute phone call. (It might help to cite the New York Times as inspiration.) Everyone has eight minutes to spare, and the “hard out” lessens the reluctance busy people may feel about committing to a phone call of undetermined length.
You are likely to experience a warm afterglow from the human voice connection, as will your friend. The call will afford you the chance to suss out opportunities to pay it forward to people in your network. With luck, someone will surprise you with a pay-it-forward gesture, too, as happened with Kwasi Asare. A few weeks after reconnecting with a business acquaintance that he hadn’t talked to in 10 years, the colleague called Kwasi to tell him about an opportunity that might be a good fit. He even offered Kwasi a glowing referral.
Don’t expect everyone to react to your every effort to connect or assist. But some will. Focus on nurturing your relationships with these people. This is the fertile ground from which future jobs and new opportunities will spring. Overtime, your efforts will succeed in growing and enriching your network. The more you cultivate this ground, the more likely that people will think of you when opportunities arise.
Be responsive to requests for favors from others. Even better, be proactive about helping people who aren’t asking for it.
Some people balk at proactively helping others because they don’t know what they have to offer. The answer to that question depends on your audience. Your service could be as complex as offering expert guidance on a tricky business situation or it could be as simple as making an introduction.
Others might balk because they feel awkward. They assume everyone in their network knows their skill sets and would unhesitatingly reach out for help. Neither is true. Kia Banisadre, who has a background in sales in the healthcare industry, knows that now.
After getting laid off three times, Kia hired The Barrett Group to gain more control over his career. When his career consultant asked him to offer his expertise to people in his network, Kia had his doubts. It was more work than he expected, and he also questioned the value of the exercise.
Kia did it, though, and he learned two important lessons. First, his assumptions about his friends were incorrect; they didn’t know what his expertise was. Second, the point of the exercise was as much to refresh relationships as it was to offer people help.
One conversation turned out to be Kia’s ticket to a brand-new career in an industry he never imagined working in.
“A former colleague who runs an accounting firm told me about some interesting market trends in the veterinary industry that his firm had benefited from. He had gotten several referrals for some high-margin business deals and wanted my advice about whether hiring a salesperson might help him to get more,” said Kia.
Kia offered his perspective and, before long, Kia’s colleague asked whether Kia would consider helping him build out a sales program for his firm and, eventually, an entire department. Ultimately, Kia was hired as VP of sales and business development.
A Pragmatic Approach to Career Growth
Paying it forward isn’t just a feel-good philosophy, it’s a pragmatic approach to career growth and personal fulfillment. Ideally, you won’t wait until you are looking to switch jobs to begin building relationships and paying it forward. But if it isn’t already a habit, the best time to start practicing paying it forward is now.
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