Guest blogger Rick Swanson, Consultant, Learning Meets Quality LLC

The credo “Givers Gain” will be familiar to small business owners, especially those who have joined a BNI (Business Network International) group as a way to build a referral network to grow their business. I’ve been a BNI member, so I’ve seen the Givers Gain philosophy in action and have watched my small business colleagues use it to grow their retail sales.

In one chapter of my book, Success from the Ashes, I detail my experience of applying the Givers Gain credo to my business. In this blog post, I examine commonalities between a small business network and a project team and offer a context in which I believe the benefits of Givers Gain can best be applied to achieve results.

When you join a BNI group, you will quickly learn the following:

  1. Relationships matter
  2. Success takes time
  3. You get out only when you put in
  4. Trust earned brings rewards while trust broken is difficult to overcome

None of these truths should come as a surprise. Your first steps in a networking group are focused on getting to know your chapter mates, and helping them get to know you and your business. It may take weeks or months of weekly meetings before you see your first referral become a sale. Moreover, even when your colleagues refer people to you, it is still your obligation to “close the deal”. Trust development is a two-way street: you will work hard to earn the trust of others, and you must assume others are willing to offer it.

Let’s look at the dynamics of a project team to see how and where these same truths apply.

I’ll start by taking the perspective of the project manager who is in charge of a project team of 4-6 persons. When a team is formed, even if the team members know each other already, there is still some “getting to know you” that will inevitably take place. The context of the project is different from the context of how you relate to your teammates outside of the project. The team’s success will largely depend on how well the members relate to each other within the context of the project. Your team’s objective probably has a defined period to be completed, such as 3, 6, or 12 months. Each project team member was selected for a reason, and each will have to contribute something to achieve the goal. As a project manager, you will both have to earn the trust of your team, and you will have to offer trust to them.

How “Givers Gain” works for the small business owner

In the setting of BNI, it works because you are in a group of like-minded individuals who each want what you want: to grow one’s business revenue, and support the growth of your colleague’s business revenue, too. The purpose of Givers Gain is two-fold. First, giving referrals to colleagues potentially increases their business revenue. Secondly, it serves as a trust-building exercise. Your colleague trusts you to give them quality referrals, and you trust your colleague will treat your referral well. The promise of Givers Gain is that as much as you give to your colleagues, you will, in turn, receive back in equal or greater measure.

Givers Gain in the project team setting

If customer referrals are the currency in a business network, what is the currency in a project team? What can you give to a team member that they can give to you or other team members in return?

The currency of project teams is time and expertise.

Let’s create a project scenario in our minds for purposes of discussion. You’re the project manager on a cost-reduction project in a manufacturing company, and joining you are team members from the following functions in your organization: finance; legal; logistics; production operations; safety. As a team, your common goal is to shave $100,000 annually off the costs of production for a product line.

Taking my premise that time and expertise are our currency of exchange, and then you, the project manager, have an opportunity to give your expertise to the team in the form of a solid project plan, and clear communication about the expectations for meeting project milestones. You will build trust with your team when you consistently meet your obligations to the project. More importantly, in my mind, you will create an environment of mutual trust when you properly delegate tasks of the project to the appropriate team members according to their respective expertise. By showing your confidence in them by entrusting them with specific tasks and not micromanaging them, you give your team members a chance to earn the trust of the rest of the team. If you deny team members this opportunity, you deny them the ability to trade in the currency of the project.

What you get – expect reciprocity from your team

In a business context, Givers Gain fails if the direction of giving only goes in one direction. The same is true in the context of a project. The risk of Givers Gain is that one individual will give much, and that same individual will receive little in return. In both contexts, if you observe this to be the case, it can serve as a red flag that the group dynamics are out of balance. In my experience, passively waiting for reciprocity to happen is a fool’s game. Rather than simply continuing to practice Givers Gain in hopes something will change, I propose that a more assertive tactic is called for. For the business owner, that might mean finding a different referral network, or changing how you communicate to others about your business. For the project manager, that might mean swapping out team members, or recommending the project be put on hold or even terminated.

In summary, Givers Gain is a useful approach to achieve the following:

  1. Build professional relationships
  2. Achieve a common goal within a small network or team
  3. Develop trust with others

My experience has taught me that practicing Givers Gain is a bit of an art form. Givers Gain by itself it does not guarantee the desired result, but one can keep it available and use it strategically in various contexts.

What’s your experience practicing Givers Gain? I’d like to hear in what settings it has worked well for you, and when it has disappointed you. Leave a comment with your story of success or failure with Givers Gain.

Rick Swanson photo

Photograph by Keri Pickett

Rick Swanson is a career chemist, educator, and project manager who has worked in the education, non-profit, and for-profit arenas. He has led projects in such diverse areas as health and safety, media production, chemical manufacturing, and small business development. Rick holds degrees in chemistry, education, and the history of science and technology, and is trained as a Six Sigma Black Belt.



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