The fastest way to improve any overall ecosystem is to share knowledge.
This is why Mastercard, for example, recently brought dozens of industry leaders together in Sri Lanka to explore better ways of mitigating the risk that digital security issues have posed. By sharing lessons learned with its private sector and governmental partners, Mastercard aimed to glean insights into the local market from people on the ground.
This type of "insider knowledge" will inform Mastercard's innovative defenses, going forward, against specific vulnerabilities in the world of electronic payments.
And it's a break from the past: Gathering the 50 smartest people in an industry together in one room to talk shop is not necessarily something that would have happened during the highly competitive Mad Men era of big advertising. But it works. Today's hyper-connected business world is more about the execution and implementation of ideas than the ideas themselves.
The message here? You can stand to expose some of your "trade secrets" when it comes to process; it's the way you do business that makes you unique. So, yes, there's no real danger in sharing knowledge -- and plenty to gain.
Network the way you date.
Networking is kind of like dating. Just as I might take a closer look when I see something in the world I like (from artwork to stylized writing to a company culture): When I run across people I like, I talk to them.
Especially with matters of business, I'm never afraid that people won't want to talk back to me about what they're up to, or that I might offend them by asking such questions. Most are happy to hear that what they're doing seems cool or meaningful, and my positive responses usually get them excited and eager to share more.
The aphorism, then, is true: "A rising tide lifts all boats." Finding the right people to share knowledge with inspires and informs everyone involved.
If you dig it, express interest.
We all spend a lot of time "networking" at work and in our private lives. The best strategy is to intentionally identify peers and mentors who can actually help you move forward and to whom you, in turn, can deliver some kind of value.
Once you make a true connection like that, the two of you become never-ending resources for each other. Here are four ideas to help you consistently cultivate supportive, symbiotic relationships with people who are just as ambitious and networked as you are.
1. Give as much as you get. As the Beatles sang, "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make." If you see someone doing something you like, reach out. And if people reach out to you about something you're doing, be open to what they say.
Don't get complacent about your leadership or understanding of the world. Always seek out other cool people, and ask them questions. Even the biggest titans of your industry will generally be down for talking about their own work (if they can fit you into their schedule). It might take a while to nail down an appointment, but keep trying.
And, if you just can't bring yourself to reach out in person, join one of the many online networks. Intuit QuickBooks' OWN IT network, for example, is full of small business owners who can help answer your questions. Just work up the courage to reach out. You won't be sorry.
On the flip side, if someone asks to bend your ear for 15 minutes over lunch, be open to sharing. Go-getters are good to know, in general, and besides, you have no idea what kind of impact that relationship could end up having. People asking for advice and feedback or about your story are likely asking the same of others, so they might be good connections to other folks you can learn something from.
2. Step outside your industry. A guy I know is in real estate. At first glance, you might not consider a commercial real estate agent a good resource for a growing marketing company. But, because this guy sees so many other growing companies, he's actually an amazing source of knowledge. He's my go-to when anyone asks me about commercial spaces, and he has great intel about the local market.
Within any industry, the major players will all get to know one other, and everyone reads the same articles and listens to the same podcasts. Knowledge can get stale. So, make connections outside of your industry, to open up avenues to learning things that you can't learn from your normal circles.
If you want a convenient, easy way to see how the insights of people in different spaces can benefit you, check out Indie Hackers, a website where entrepreneurs across all industries share their own candid stories. Not only can you read about them, but you can also join a supportive community of other independent entrepreneurs.
3. Always ask, "How can I help you?" Think about how you can add value. Maybe it's by making an introduction, doing a podcast interview or providing insight into a certain business problem. You can guess or you can ask, but make it obvious that the relationship goes both ways.
In my professional life, the people I work with typically know better than I do how I can be of the most value to them, so I just ask. First, I pick their brains for whatever info I want to know, and then I ask bluntly, "What can I do for you?"
What's the point of being coy about it? According to The Future of Business survey conducted by Facebook in collaboration with the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 42 percent of businesses polled said that learning from one other is one of the main ways they figure out how to run a business in a mobile-first economy -- second only to Googling it.
4. Remember: Little things keep relationships strong. My wife gets a bigger kick out of a random card on the bed than some extravagant Valentine's Day plan. The same holds true in business relationships. Those small things that don't seem like much sometimes end up meaning a lot.
Speaking of cards, businesspeople get a lot of prefabricated ones and what-not, so small gestures that create real human connections can have an outsized impact. For instance, a guy I know was at a place called Hawkes Wine in Sonoma, California, and snapped a picture of the sign and sent it to me with a note saying, "You guys should open up a winery." I texted him back a picture of our office with a case of Hawkes' wine in it, which we actually use for gifts.
Related: Think Small to Win Customer Loyalty
The key is to treat people you have business relationships with like human beings. Share fun stuff you know they'll find interesting, and then follow up accordingly and organically.
Creating a network of smart, ambitious people to share knowledge with is one of the smartest things you can do for your career. Be assertive, and don't just use people for their knowledge. Great relationships build great businesses.