When you’re talented, hardworking, and good at your job, it can be frustrating to see your colleagues and peers getting ahead while you remain stuck. You may find yourself asking, “What secret do they know that I don’t?” In today’s episode with Larry Perkins, we discuss his new book, Don’t Be a Stranger, and how you can create your own luck in business through strategic relationship building rather than relying on others to propel your career. Larry, at the age of 29, with only a few connections and very little capital, built a nationwide management consulting group serving nearly a hundred large companies.
Today, he’s recognized as an industry leader, and has spoken at major industry conferences, and has been cited by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, CNN, CNBC, and the Washington Post. In today’s episode, Larry shares simple techniques on how to develop a community of people around you that will enrich your career as well as your life.
Discover how adding a little bit of joy to other people’s lives can create strategic serendipity and boost your career far more than working an extra hour at your desk. And, as the world becomes more and more remote, relationship building has never been more important. Enjoy this wide-ranging episode as Larry shares how we can stay human, and why it’s so important to not be a stranger.
Miles Rote: Hey everyone. I’m excited to be here today with Larry Perkins, author of Don’t Be a Stranger, with the subtitle, Create Your Own Luck in Business Through Strategic Relationship Building. Larry, I’m excited you’re here, welcome to the Author Hour podcast.
Larry Perkins: Thanks for having me, I’m really looking forward to being here.
Miles Rote: Let’s start by giving our listeners a bit of background on who you are and what inspired you to write this book?
Larry Perkins: Well, who I am–I suppose I’m an entrepreneur who has turned into a business owner and manager. I started a management consulting firm that works with distressed companies and I started that business about 2007–13 years ago. What prompted me to write the book was ultimately, a passion for what I’m writing about on one side but, at the end of it, it was just someone encouraging me to do it.
I was explaining my story, and I had honestly a failure with a software startup trying to do some of the things we talk about in the book. Just going through that story, one of my trusted colleagues, apropos on what the book talks about, introduced me to a guy who had written a couple of books. That guy said, “Hey, this sounds like a great idea for a book, you should go do this,” and then I did it.
Miles Rote: I love that. Don’t Be a Stranger, tell us a little bit more about that title and what that means to you?
Larry Perkins: Yeah, it ultimately is something that I say frequently, and then, in the process of writing the book, I was thinking about it and what that really means to me. It’s a throw-away expression. I often say that at the end of a telephone call or an introduction, especially when I’m meeting someone new. It’s not that there’s something immediate to follow up with the person about, you just had a pleasant conversation, you like the person, and you want to stay in touch with them, but it’s not like, I need to go have lunch with you next week, or we need to go work on a business deal, or you need to come work for me, or I need to come work for you.
Ultimately, it’s I want to stay in touch with you, and I just like the turn of phrase. Don’t be a stranger, it’s a little bit old fashioned but at the same time, I like how it sounds.
Don’t Be a Stranger
Miles Rote: Yeah. You know what’s interesting about it too, most people say it, like you said, as a throw-away statement. But in your book, you basically remind people not to throw that statement away and to actually act on it. When people start out, a lot of people actually start their career by knowing someone at that job, and I think they understand that relationship building is important, but then it seems like they get caught up in the corporate ladder and don’t really act on that and try to leverage their relationships. Why do you think that is?
Larry Perkins: Yeah, I think part of it is intention, and I think a big theme throughout the book is adding intention to your relationship-building process. With just that little bit of intention, it gets a heck of a lot easier, but just like anything else, just whether it’s exercise or diet or anything else you’re trying to do with your life, if you don’t add intention to those things, you’ll let them slip away.
You know, I had a colleague once, early on in my career, who joked about it. He always said it was easier to do nothing than to do something. That is in fact the case, but I think the other expression if you do what everyone else does, you get what everyone else gets. This is something that not everyone else does, but it’s absolutely within the realm of what everyone else can do. I guess that’s where it really comes from.
Miles Rote: In the book, you talk about quite a few different tactics for building relationships. Can you share some of those from your favorite tactics?
Larry Perkins: Sure, one of the things I frequently do is just take a quick scroll through my–I would say my Rolodex, but I’m not even that old to deal with Rolodexes–but going through my contact list and just kind of perusing and saying, “My gosh, I haven’t spoken to this person for six months. I don’t know why, I like him!” I’ll just go through and what seems like a throwaway type of email can often yield amazing things, ranging from just a pleasant round of conversation, all the way through to business opportunities, or other ways that we could help each other. But you know, that note can be absolutely innocuous.
It can be something that is prompted from a prior conversation. I know this person likes Duke Basketball, I know that this person has a kid with a really cool name, I know this person just had a dog that was getting trained. I mean, it could be something absolutely benign, but you remind that person and say, “Hey, John, I remember that you were watching the basketball game last time. It doesn’t look like they’re having a good year this year. Wondering what your thoughts are?” It just opens up the door of conversation and it doesn’t have to be anything too deep but from there, it can be, “I didn’t know what you were doing. Long time no hear,” all those sorts of things that come out of that, and that’s one example.
Another example is introducing someone. I have a whole chapter on this–but there’s always this idea of wanting to help people by leveraging your networks. I mean, everything from, “Hey, I need a new dentist. Do you know a good dentist?” Now, I like my guy. My dentist is a good guy and you introduce them and then they’re off to the races and hopefully there’s a good experience there. Those are probably the ones that I use the most frequently or what I would call the random reach out on one side. But the other one is just trying to help someone you like by helping another person you like.
Miles Rote: How do people respond when you take that extra step and ask a question like that, that maybe they’re not expecting?
Larry Perkins: Overwhelmingly, at worst, they don’t respond. After doing thousands of these emails or text messages, I don’t think anyone ever said, “Don’t call me again.” You know, I don’t think anyone, because it’s coming from an organic place. I think at worst, they don’t reply, and I usually chalk it up to the fact that they’re probably busy and there’s no real response required.
But usually, they reply and say, “Oh my gosh, it’s been so long.” Maybe it’s the conversation that is, “Hey, let’s get lunch,” and lunch never happens. Maybe it’s, “Hey, you want to grab–not with COVID–you want to grab a beer after work?” Overwhelmingly they are on the positive side of the spectrum.
Miles Rote: You know, you mentioned that people don’t respond, but still, they’re seeing that you’re taking an extra step and reaching out. I think that’s really important, but you know, you mentioned something very interesting about COVID and the pandemic right now. With everything going on and the world moving more remote, how does that affect relationship building, and how can people stay in close relationships and improve their relationships with others?
Larry Perkins: Yeah, it’s a really good question. Let’s be realistic, it has changed things because there’s not the same level of lunches, and I don’t care what people say about Zoom lunches, it’s not the same thing, having someone watching me eat a sandwich on camera. It has definitely changed. That said, it hasn’t gone away, it’s just changed. I think that there’s probably more reach out on Whatsapp, and texting, and just random calls that are out there than you would probably do in a non-COVID world.
I think the other side of it is that people are now almost clamoring more for that human interaction, because if I’m thinking about my regular work week, where I may bump into physically 150 people pre-COVID, now my world’s gotten pretty small. You know, besides my family and maybe the few people that are socially distancing at the office, you know, it’s in the 9 or 10 range. So, I think people are more receptive to reaching out.
Actually, in some ways, through this whole thing, I think my network has actually broadened because I’m being intentional about it. I’m staying in touch with people, I’m curious about people. I actually care about people a lot and I think that’s part of why this works for me. I’m asking how people are experiencing this. There’s a lot to talk about right now.
There’s not that awkward pause that can be in some conversations, because there is lots to talk about, there are interesting things going on in the world. I think in some ways, it’s actually increased.
Miles Rote: I think that’s a really good point. I think this is really given everyone an opportunity to realize how important relationships are to them, as well. But what about introverts? A lot of introverts may feel intimidated at the idea of reaching out to a colleague or trying to build a relationship with them. What would you say to introverts?
Larry Perkins: There’s some debate among my friend’s circle whether or not this is in fact true, but actually, on the various different tests I’ve taken, I test out on the introvert scale. But one of the things that I’ve noticed is that I think where this falls for introverts is if you’re really trying to reach out and do the “networking” that you read about in books or that you hear about in college, that I think feels a little bit gross to people.
What I’m talking about is just reaching out to people that you like. Then, the people that you like reach out to their friends, and then you start building a community of people that you like. Even if you’re an introvert, I think, overwhelmingly, human beings are social animals and I think they end up spending time with people that they like and it gets a heck of a lot less scary. I think the notion of cold calling is terrifying to an introvert. It’s terrifying to me, I had those jobs in college and it was a miserable experience.
What I find myself doing is reaching out to a buddy who I used to work with or reaching out to somebody who I worked with on a deal, and that’s easy because we have a common experience. I tend to like them, they may or may not like me, and I reach out to these people and it’s nothing heavy. You’re just saying, “Hey, remember that time we did X?” Or, “It would be great to catch up over that deal, that was a long time ago.” Things like that, they come up and it’s not a hard conversation. It’s a heck of a lot less scary for introverts than it would be otherwise.
Miles Rote: I like that. There’s also a term in your book called ‘strategic serendipity’ and I really like that term. Could you explain a little bit what that means?
Larry Perkins: Sure, I think a whole lot of business success is really being in the right place at the right time. That’s obviously what serendipity means. What I find though is using this technique and really following the practices that the book lays out is kind of strategically putting yourself to be in the right place at the right time when that thing comes up.
You know, in my particular business, I work with troubled companies. The services that I provide aren’t terribly relevant for a perfectly healthy company. There has to be some level of trouble and most companies aren’t in trouble at any given time, so I need that thing to happen for us to get called in and referred to a situation.
What that really means though is when that trouble situation happens, and someone is looking to call someone, they’re probably thinking about the person who is top of mind at that point, and that’s where the strategic serendipity comes in. I talk about in the book, Dunbar’s number, which is this idea has been in several top psychology books over the last several years, but it’s this notion that you can kind of keep 150 things trapped in your brain.
Really, what this book is all about is, whether that’s 150 or 200 or 1000, trying to stay in that top 150 relationships that people have. Really just kind of hacking your way into that so you’re top of mind when whatever that thing happens that requires your service. If you’re a real estate broker, you know, everyone knows a hundred real estate brokers. You want to be the one they’d think of when it’ time to sell your house.
If you’re a stockbroker and someone wants to be more responsible with their money, you want to be the one they think of when it’s time for them to make that decision. Really, what this is about is kind of intentionally making it into the person’s top of mind whenever that happens. I’ve seen the other side of this. I frequently get asked, “Hey, do you know a good lawyer for XYZ?” or, “Do you know a good real estate broker for XY or Z?”
Overwhelmingly, it’s going to be the person that either I have a really deep relationship with, so they’re already in my 150, or it’s going to be somebody that I had lunch with last week, or I was texting with yesterday or is a friend of a friend that I know through a guy. You know, all those kinds of things are really what kind of drive my referral process.
Miles Rote: Yeah, that’s a really good point about just being top of mind, and as long as you are taking actions to stay top of mind, then they’re more likely to think of you when your services are needed. You’ve worked with other companies, it sounds like, doing this. Are there any examples that really stick out where they’ve applied some of these concepts and had a lot of success because of it?
Larry Perkins: Sure thing. I write about this in the book, and it was one of those situations that crystallized for me in a lot of ways was–and this was years ago. I tend to travel a lot, so I give a lot of airport stories, but I think I was sitting in the airport at this point, and I think I was watching The Wire, the show on HBO for a while, great show. I ran out of disk space or something and it was pre-streaming, so I couldn’t watch it anyway.
I ran out of stuff to do, and it’s the end of the day, I was tired, I didn’t want to do any work. I think I didn’t have a book with me, so I just started playing this contact roulette. I came across the name of a former client, actually. It was someone who I’ve actually worked across from and wasn’t even my client but it was someone that I met with a client, who I was actually averse to, I was on the other side of them. I remember liking her, she was a really sharp lady and I just literally sent out an email to that person saying, “Hey Carol, it’s been too long. I remember working on that deal. I hope everything worked out–it was a tricky situation, but I remember enjoying the time with you.”
Just innocuous as ever, right? Nothing really–took me a minute to do. Literally within 10 minutes, I get a response back saying, “Larry, my gosh. What a weird coincidence, I was just thinking about you. We need your services. I would love to call you. Can we set up some time to talk about this tomorrow?”
Sure enough, this was a 6-figure project for my firm, it was a terribly successful outcome on the other side. I think Carol got a good outcome, we got a good outcome, and everything kind of worked out. It was literally because I ran out of time on The Wire, and just reached out to say something that took me 20 seconds to tap out.
Moments of Joy
Miles Rote: Yeah, and we can forget how easy it can be, just having that little extra note, that little extra touch. Another concept in the book that I really like is you talk about being a person that adds a little joy to work in other people’s lives. What are a few examples of that and why is that important?
Larry Perkins: Yeah, I think it is the basic level. I think it’s making the person feel like they’re heard. You are actually listening to them. You are not selling them, it is not sending them a spam message about all the good things that you are doing. You know, ultimately it’s saying, “Hey, I know you like the Yankees. I saw this news about the Yankees. I am just thinking about you.” I think at the end of the day that is what people care about.
I have disparate interests, but I think a lot of people have disparate interests. You don’t have to be terribly profound about something. They are not going to criticize you because they already read the article on the Yankees. They’re going to say, “Oh, that is an interesting article. I read that too. Thanks for thinking of me.” I mean that’s a very common response and maybe it comes with, “We should get together soon,” or maybe it comes with, “Oh great, there is a deal I have been thinking about.”
Maybe it’s nothing but I think just that little moment of joy that says, “Oh my gosh, this other human being is unsolicitedly thinking about me.” I feel special for that moment. I don’t know about you, it is like getting a little Christmas card. I love getting Christmas cards. I love that time of year, we put them all in the wall of the house and it just means that someone took the moment to put a stamp on an envelope and send it to me, and I felt special for that moment. It takes a second, but it really warms your day a little bit.
Miles Rote: And what’s been your experience if you do that kind of thing over and over with someone?
Larry Perkins: I mean there is a weirdness factor to it. I mean you don’t want to be over the top. If you are doing the same thing to the same person every day, it sounds weird, especially if you’re not terribly close to them. You know, we are all smart. We know when we are being pushy. I think if you feel like you might be being pushy, here is a tip–you are. I think the idea is that there is no magic number.
It is not three months. It’s not nine months, but there is a natural cadence to things. Some people you reach out to once a week because they’re good friends. I don’t have to remind myself to call my good buddy. It is just something that happens organically. Really it is the people that you have that conversation at the beginning where you say, “Don’t be a stranger,” and you’re following your own advice. You’re not being a stranger. If they don’t respond, maybe you don’t respond twice, okay maybe they don’t want to stay in touch with you, and they are just being polite.
But in most cases, they’re going to respond, and you can engage in that conversation. So, there is a feel aspect to it. There is not a robotic answer to this. It is one of those things that, probably more often than may feel normal for people to do, but at the same time not so much that it is going to be pushy.
Miles Rote: Have you found over time, as you build these relationships, that they change and that the person on the other end interacts with you differently? What is that experience of being the person who isn’t a stranger? I feel like a lot of people are used to–for example, if someone calls you on the phone and it is not business-related, or knocks on your door, people now days can almost be taken a little bit taken aback. So, what is it like to be that person who really steps in and tries to not be a stranger with people?
Larry Perkins: It is definitely an outlier. I think it is an outlier in a positive way. I think the 2020 version of this is very different than the 1980 version of this. I think in 1980 you’re probably picking up the phone and leaving a message with someone’s assistant. I think now probably that same level of interaction is going to be sending a text message or hitting them up on LinkedIn or something like that.
I think you have to meet people where they are, and I think there is a lot of nuance between generations and levels of comfort and geography. I mean there are lots of different ways to think about it. I think that people honestly, for the most part, there’s varying degrees of intimacy on the level of communication that you used. I think having dinner with families is probably the most intimate that you can have in the business relationship setting, all the way through to the email probably being the least.
You find the spectrum of that and where you are in the relationship. I feel like if I have broken bread with someone and have lunch, maybe had drinks with someone, met them at a conference, having an email after that is perfectly easy and innocuous. If I’ve had dinner with someone, and I am on a pretty personal level about sending them a text or otherwise, it is like the next level down on the scale.
There is a judgment call with each one of these, but I think most people will have a pretty good sense on where they stand on that hierarchy.
Miles Rote: Yeah and like you mentioned, you can be an outlier but I don’t think that is a bad thing. As you mentioned for these strategic serendipitous moments, being the outlier is also something that will definitely play in your favor. To be the one who makes them think about things a little bit differently is a very powerful thing. So, let’s say someone likes what you are saying and is ready to make the jump and start building connections in their workplace, what is the number one thing you suggest doing? The first move just to get the ball rolling?
Larry Perkins: Yeah, the first move is to take someone that you just haven’t spoken to that you like a lot. And that’s reasonably easy to do. Maybe open up your calendar and look at a dinner event you went to three months ago, depending on your industry. Maybe it was a closing at a real estate dinner, maybe it was a conference you went to and just think about it for a second. Was there anyone there that I met that I had a good time with?
For purposes of an example, someone you didn’t stay in touch with. It jogs your memory, and then the next level down–and this is all happening at a matter of five seconds–and then the next level down is, “What were we talking about? Why did I like that person? I doubt we were talking about how great his company was and how great my company was, I doubt that is what it was. I remember we were talking about kids, and I remember that person was talking about the birthday party he was throwing, and the unicorn balloons he was looking for.”
That’s a perfectly easy thing to say, and you reach back out to that person and say, “Hey, I remember running into you. No occasion to stay in touch except that I wanted to stay in touch and I remember you were looking for those special unicorn balloons for your daughter. Did you end up tracking them down, just curious? Thanks. Hope you’re well, Larry.” There is so much loaded in that. That is never going to make it into a CRM, contact relationship management system, that is not relevant data, but it is something that a lot of people will say, “Well, you must have a crazy memory to think about that stuff.”
I really challenge that because I think if you actually think about it for a moment, you will remember what you were talking about for the most part, and you can think about those little random things about a person that is probably what they really care about, more than what they’re selling that day or otherwise. It is like reviewing a resume. I always look at the bottom line of the resume first and see what their other interests are because for the most part, by the time it hits my desk they are already screened for their competency. So, now I am trying to see what makes them tick and what is interesting. Those are the things you learn when you spend time with people that probably catch their energy and make them feel like they are heard a little bit more than it would be otherwise.
That is an example of someone you liked, that you didn’t stay in touch with, and you remember something interesting, and then it builds from there.
Miles Rote: Yeah people do really appreciate being heard, and oftentimes don’t necessarily feel as though they are heard. You mentioned a few things, are there things you do specifically to remember certain things? Do you take notes when you are, in some kind of Rolodex so to speak, as you mentioned, or anywhere else? Or is this really just an organic thing?
Larry Perkins: I go in fits and starts of taking notes and otherwise, but I think at the end of it, I tend to remember the things that are most relevant. You know, I went through the process of writing down kid’s names and stuff like that, and sometimes it works. Sometimes it feels phony, and I think people can identify when it feels phony. A big part of this is making it organic.
I am not trying to be best friends with everybody. I am just trying to remember them and that I am thinking about them. They are thinking about me. It is the separation of buddy and friend that I talk about a little bit in the book. I am not saying this is someone that is going to bail me out of jail if I get in trouble, right? I am talking about someone who I just want to stay in touch with and that I want to stay friendly with. I think that is a big part of your work life with those types of people. I think you are keeping it at that level.
Yes, some of those people will advance into the true friend stage. You know, your true confidants, but I think there is a lot of room for both of those and I am totally okay with that. For what it’s worth, even if you are not okay with that, you are okay with that because you have a lot of those in your life.
Miles Rote: I really like the distinction between buddy and friend too. Can you maybe say a little bit more about that? You touched on it, but I think listeners would like to hear the difference between the two.
Larry Perkins: Sure thing. It is someone that you have, particularly if you are working on work projects together, you are on the phone with them all the time. You know, there is that inevitable part before conference calls, where you’re talking about the weather or what you are doing this weekend. You are not talking about hopes and dreams in the world, but you are having a pleasant conversation. I think that is a perfect example of a buddy.
There is the person you see on the subway on the way to work, when people were taking subways to work, that is a buddy. You know the guy you see in the coffee shop when you pick up your coffee in the morning that could be a buddy. I happen to play a lot of tennis. There are people that I will play tennis with and we’re buddies. Not my best friends necessarily but we’re buddies, and I think that is a big part of just day to day life.
They’re people that you have pleasant interactions with, they’re not strangers, and they are not friends. I think that is exactly where this comes in–don’t be a stranger
Miles Rote: People spend a lot of time trying to move up the corporate ladder or trying to get a promotion and that is a goal for a lot of people for very understandable reasons. I think all of us want to move up in our job and become more successful and even more purposeful. How much more should people be engaging in their relationships, and trying to leverage and build their relationships? I know again, as we touched on in the beginning, a lot of people can get caught up just in corporate-tocricy or trying to move up the ladder and get consumed by work.
What would you recommend, maybe even per day, how many minutes people spend trying to build their relationships?
Larry Perkins: It depends on the type of industry that you are in. If you are an entrepreneur–I started my business when I was 29 years old and there is nothing like desperation. I was maniacal about it. I was trying to get 30 touchpoints a week, that was my number, and I would usually exceed that. It sounds like a lot, but it is really not that much if you’re thinking about a quick note etcetera, etcetera. So, 30 was the thing that made my business fail or business work.
It is a totally doable thing, and it builds on itself and gets easier, but that sounds like a scary number. I mean, when I talk about this in general with people, start with one. One is better than zero, two is better than one, five is better than four. I mean, you get the idea, you don’t have to do a million of them at once. It does build on itself so the more you do the easier it gets but at the same time, starting with one, you will start to see immediate rewards out of it. That is where I’d go.
I think about industries that tend to be a little more focused on event-driven things, so think about law firms, think about real estate brokers, you probably want to get into the double digits. I think when you are talking about more of a traditional corporate trajectory, you are probably less than 10, unless you are a salesperson or out in front of people trying to develop business.
One of the things I’ve learned in my CEO journey is that the further up the chain you go the more like a salesman you look, a lot of times, whether you are selling the board members or shareholders or other people that are out there, you know there is definitely a sale-sy component of virtually every CEO in the world. I think that is something that I have identified along the way.
I had a client before and he had this expression, he said he would tell his kids if they don’t eat their vegetables, he was going to make them be a salesman.
That was a funny thing at the time, but I think what I have learned is he was a CEO and he was the ultimate salesman. So, I think there was a little bit of tongue planted in his cheek there.
Miles Rote: I like the distinction too that you made from the entrepreneurial world and the corporate world because I think that’s important to make. It could be a little much maybe in the corporate world for some to feel like they need to make 30 touch points but yeah, doing 10 is a good number. So, first of all, writing a book is no joke, so congratulations. If readers could take away one thing from your book, what would it be?
Larry Perkins: The big distinction that I am trying to make in the book is that there is this idea out there that networking is something that people have to do, and it is something that generally kind of sucks. What I do I don’t consider networking. What I do is considered reaching out to friends and staying in touch with people, and it feels very different.
I feel like networking is strategically trying to claw your way into a certain place, and what I am talking about doing is letting the world take over with where you are trying to go, trying to help people be of service. There are lots of books about this stuff–serving leadership all the way through the law of attraction type of ideas, but I think ultimately if you are helping people, A, it feels good to you, B it feels good to them. When there is that kind of symbiosis of things happening, good things tend to happen.
I guess that is what I want people to take away. I am not asking you to do something uncomfortable. In fact, I am actually asking for you to do something that is terribly comfortable, reaching out to somebody you know and saying, “Hello.” It is a very human experience. I am just asking you to do it in a professional context and good things seem to come from that.
Miles Rote: Larry this has been such a pleasure and I couldn’t agree more. After reading your book, I must say I am definitely re-evaluating the relationships in my life, especially at work. I think you are absolutely right and nailed it on the head with getting back to human, and the things that make us human, and how important relationships are in being human, and how relationships can really build our career and take us further than working harder at our desk, so thank you.
Everyone, the book is called, Don’t Be a Stranger: Create Your Own Luck in Business Through Strategic Relationship Building. You can find it on Amazon and besides checking out the book, where can people find you, Larry?
Larry Perkins: We are on Amazon and Audible, of course, on the book side. We actually have a website out there. I’ll have to give you the official title. I think it’s dontbeastrangerbook.com. My company is called Sierra Constellation Partners. I am on LinkedIn. As you can imagine, I am not a stranger out there, so if you Google Lawrence Perkins you will find me.
Miles Rote: Perfect, Larry Perkins thank you so much for this and we look forward to sharing your book with the world.
Larry Perkins: Thank you very much, I appreciate being here.