The favor bank

I was an executive recruiter for Korn/Ferry for many years. Most of my time was consumed with the task of helping clients identify and recruit top notch talent. And when I wasn’t working on a search, I was working on acquiring new clients. But there’s another, less productive task that I had to provide, and that all recruiters must provide. It’s what the industry refers to as “courtesy interviews.” These are phone calls or in-person meetings with candidates looking for jobs, even if they are wholly unqualified. 

Recruiters conduct these courtesy interviews for one simple reason: because someone we care about has asked us to. The requestor might be a relative, a friend, a client, a colleague or even a person we met on an airplane. Most of the interviews aren’t particularly productive, but they are nonetheless a crucial element of the larger ecosystem we operate in. We provide a kindness to someone in need, and the hope is that one day this kindness will be repaid.

In his 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe introduced the concept of the “favor bank.” The idea is that one should make “deposits” in to the favor bank, because inevitably it will be necessary to one day make a “withdrawal.” It’s an efficient and time-worn system. It’s also one of the most effective engines for advancing a career.  

In a world of social media and digital engagement, it is easy to overlook the remarkable efficacy of personal relationships. But behind every senior executive’s ascension is a story of a mentor, friend, relative or even stranger who opened a door or put in a good word. The simple truth is relationships are almost as important as competence when it comes to climbing the corporate ladder.

I learned this first hand when I applied for a college internship with Ruder and Finn more than 35 years ago. After I applied, my mother suggested I send a note to Bill Ruder, the chairman of the firm, because his daughter and my older sister were friends in college. I was appalled. I didn’t want to bother Mr. Ruder, and I was sure that the only things the HR department cared about were my grades, my experience and my suitability as a prospective intern. 

I got the internship, and was ultimately offered a fulltime job at the firm. Years later, my boss shared with me a note that Bill Ruder had sent to the HR department saying I was a good candidate, and asking them to keep him apprised of my candidacy. I’m not sure that’s why they selected me, but I am sure that a note from the Chairman didn’t hurt. More importantly, I was touched by his kindness and vowed that I would try to pass it forward whenever possible as I built my own career.

I soon began making regular deposits in to my own favor bank, and to this day I am amazed at how much these small acts of kindness have paid off. And continue to.

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