The ‘I’ in Connection

PEOPLE PASSSION 360 by John PhilpinIt was Robin Dunbar who developed the science, research and conclusion that each of us are only capable of 150 ‘meaningful’ social connections. Click through if you want to know more, because this isn’t a lesson in social connections. For 16 years I have carried this in my mind, along with another concept that emerged from Malcolm Gladwell’s first book ‘The Tipping Point’.

That concept was ‘The Law of the Few’ which explored the idea that in any (what he called) social epidemic (but what I think of as message amplification in all kinds of situations), there are essentially three key roles;

  • Mavens (those people with the domain knowledge, the ‘information brokers’ who share and trade what they know through word of mouth.
  • Salesmen (the ‘persuaders’) … those people with powerful negotiation skills that can take people on a journey – transcending what they say by bringing people into the tent and having therm agree with you. Buy into your story if you will.
  • Connectors (they know a lot of people and are always making introductions).

You might have guessed by now that it is this last role – the connector – that I am interested in, because in life that role is rarely valued and so misunderstood that the ‘connection game’ is oft’ seen as a ‘con’. “Yeah, all they do is connect people .. it’s not like real work.”

Rarely valued? Surely not?

Well if you examine any large organization, you will quickly find the sales people. You will also know who’s the best (the one that sells the most) and who’s the worst (they tend not to be around next year). The Maven? Slightly more difficult since to understand, since the Mavens are defined by the organization they belong to. If you are in construction, civil engineers are likely the Mavens. In Facebook, probably the coders. In a law firm … the lawyers. Bottom line, with a little bit of thought Mavens can be identified.

In both cases, not only can you work out who’s who, but you can also see how direct value can be applied to what they do and how they are rewarded.

But what of these connectors? Who are they? How are they valued? What exactly, do they do?

Jocelyn K. Glei writing a couple of weeks ago talked of the work that Dr. Stanley Milgram did prior to Dunbar but adjacent to the topic. As part of her post, Jocelyn shared the story of how Lauren Bacall came to fame, let me paraphrase her words to get to the point …

“Lauren Bacall ‘made herself the center of a howling whirlwind of people’ and actually had no way of knowing which of those people would be best able to help her break through. In the end, Lauren met Timothy Brooke who introduced her to Nicolas de Gunzburg who introduced her to Diana Vreeland who introduced her to Howard Hawks … and so was Lauren Bacall’s movie career launched.”

Put it another way, had it not been for an obscure English writer called Timothy Brooke, the world might never have heard of Lauren Bacall and she almost certainly would not have met, nor married, Humphrey Bogart.

Now, if you do some checking, you will likely find that Diana Vreeland is often credited with ‘discovering’ Bacall. Wikipedia corrects that – and points out that Nicolas de Gunzburg introduced them. So he discovered her? But what of Timothy Brooke? And that, right there, is my point and why this @GapingVoid cartoon resonated when I saw it this past week.

Screen Shot 2016-06-19 at 7.54.48 PMThe Monetization of The Network

A lot of people talk of the concept of ‘paying it forward’. You know … do good somewhere, for someone and karma will in the fullness of time, reward you back. I know, I do it all the time. But karma is not a very good business model.

In the past ten years creative professionals have started to feel this pressure. Musicians are being asked to play for free – and use ‘tips’ as their reward. Designers get asked to design for free and after that, be assured that others will see their work and be lining up to buy their services – ‘its like marketing’. And writers. Don’t get me started. Let Harlan Ellison fill you in on that one.

Connectors on the other hand have lived that way forever and so the assumption is that this is the natural order of things. OK, I can see you shaking your head. Everyone knows the importance of the connector. Good grief, my company even pays 10% to anyone who gives us a lead that results in business.

And middlemen? The world is full of them that’s just another name for connectors – it is the ‘art of good business’.

Surely, whichever way you look at it – we are rewarding the connector? Well yes. And no.

Back to the Lauren Bacall story. Based on this logic, if anyone gets paid / benefits from the connection it is Howard, or maybe Diana. Timothy and Nicolas would be left well out in the cold. Do they not deserve a reward? Well they might, but it certainly doesn’t happen.

True Story

I am helping a good friend sell a record catalogue. I am not of the music industry, but you know, I know people … a bit like Don in Sexy Beast.

OK, I know I am unlikely to be the guy who connects my friend to the final buyer, but I am connecting the dots. Should I be rewarded? According to one of my referrals – no.

“I am not sharing my commission – you should just thank John”

Not surprised, it is the nature of the music industry (I believe that greed is at the root of why the music industry finally collapsed under its own weight – but that’s another story.) That’s ok, it isn’t how I make my living, so reward on this deal is not the big picture. But. If it was. How would I feel? In fact how would I live in such circumstances? How would I protect my revenue stream?

A Solution?

At the turn of the millennium, a friend and I rapped on the idea of a single ‘global reference network’. The concept being that I would have connections to people, who would have connections to people, who would have …. well you see how it works. This was before Reid Hoffman started linkedIN. But our thinking wasn’t a social network, but rather a referral network. Kind of like how Amway works but simply for connections and referrals, not selling specific product. I will write about this separately one day, for now, because it is hard and as far as I can see this is one of those ‘wicked problems’.

As Hugh’s graphic above suggests, it isn’t the nodes, it is the connections. The key however is that not all connections are equal. And, to go one step further, it is the quality, context and strength of the connection that defines its power. And finally how many connections you have says more about the individual than how much success you will have (yes – I am talking to you LIONsyou know it doesn’t really work that way.

In case you weren’t aware, software is already available that can look across an organization and provide not just the most direct route between sales person and buyer, but also the strength of that connection. But software is only as good as the process that underpins it.

How To Blow It All Up

I am reminded of a colleague who was being courted for a sales role. The company in question was having difficulties as the world was fast moving away from the kind of service the they offered. For years they had their ostrich heads in the sand, waiting for the ‘good times’ to come back. If I tell you that the company in question was part of the publishing industry, you will understand how little they understood.

Nevertheless, always up for a challenge and after a lengthy process including long deliberation and negotiation, an agreement was made, home uprooted and new position started.

It took a day of settling in before my friend was asked to ‘upload all their business contacts into the corporate system’. All attempts to explain that ‘my rolodex is mine … not yours’, fell on deaf ears. Apparently ‘it was company policy’ (needless to say nobody could actually show that paragraph in the manual.) But, in good spirit, after a long discussion, three key contacts were added to the system, to see how it all panned out. On top of that, they agreed that the contacts were not being given and they were to be used for lead generation that would involve my friend. In less than 24 hours all three of those contacts had contacted my friend directly asking who ‘redacted’ was. and what is she talking about? End result, two of the three contacts are permanently burnt. My friend is no longer there and the organization involved continued to crater.

Had the opportunity of having three hand chosen people that my friend knew personally and fully understood how the offer would match into those three businesses, life would have been very different. Instead, the people were treated as a node – and the connection to them was the weakest possible.


It isn’t the number of connections you have, but the quality, context and strength of those connections. The race to the top is the race to the bottom. That said, just this week it has been suggested that this idea might explain why Microsoft paid such a premium for linkedIN.

It doesn’t matter how far removed you are from where the billion dollar deal goes down – if it wasn’t for that first connection, it might never have happened. Should we always rely on karma for our rewards?

No. Life is too short to nail it all down with contracts.

Finally, “I am a big believer in the power of ‘we’ and favor ‘we’ over ‘me’, I also don’t want to forget that just as there is a ‘me’ in team, so too is there an ‘I’ in connection.”

If you are interested in helping me build this new world. Let me know. Someone needs to do it.

Until then, let me leave you with this beautiful piece of music – with an overdubbing of the way life is and will be – until we fix this problem.

John Philpin
JOHN'S career spans 30 years, 2 continents, and organizations as diverse as Oracle, Citibank and GE. A Mathematics graduate, John moved to California in 1990. He helps technology companies create, develop and deliver their story for fund raising, market development and influencer programs. He also works with businesses to ensure they understand, and are ready, for the ever accelerating changes that technology is bringing to their industry. John is a co-founder of Expert Alumni and gleXnet and long before futurists and industry watchers were writing about the impending challenges that industries were going to be facing, they predicted a perfect storm of issues like skills gap, declining work forces, the gig economy, people trained to do work no longer needed, demographic shifts, economic and social change, market upheaval and rapidly changing ways of doing work. From the beginning they have promoted the idea that massive change was coming to how organizations should think about their workforce, with a singular focus on simplifying the interface between people and their work. Understanding the challenges ahead of the curve, the solution was built to arrive at a better understanding of the greatest restraint to business operations - competence, not capital. gleXnet provides unparalleled insights into an organizations people and operations by flipping the problem from the perspective of people, not the business.


  1. John Philpin, thank you for a most thought provoking article. It is one of the best presentation and articles I have read in a long time – very perspicacious and extremely insightful, highlighting the importance of connecting with self and with others. It is a must read for all.

    ” The art of good business is..being a good middleman.” Brilliant




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