Six Degrees of Non-Transactional Relationships
Why playing the long game with others matters more than you realize
Last week, I led a workshop for the San Francisco chapter of Entrepreneurs’ Organization, a “community for entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs.” Its members are successful business owners whose companies gross more than $1M annually.
Afterwards, I reflected on the events that led to me - a newly-minted entrepreneur (seriously, the ink is barely dry on the Money and Love Institute’s LLC filing) - getting hired to speak to a room full of experienced business owners.
The common theme has to do with the importance of non-transactional relationships, something we should all keep in mind as we navigate our careers and our lives.
To illustrate this, humor me while I play a game I like to call “Six Degrees of Abby Davisson” (which admittedly doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as Kevin Bacon).
What non-transactional looks like
When my co-author Myra and I were looking for a PR firm to help us launch Money and Love into the world, my friend(who happens to be a bestselling author) connected me to Bryan.
We didn’t end up hiring Bryan, but as part of the process, Bryan read an early copy of our book and became one of its biggest champions.
He recognized (before we did, frankly) that our book would resonate with founders and others in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and he made many introductions on our behalf, including to EO. He invited me and Myra to be guests on his podcast when our book launched and he’s provided me with helpful feedback, including on the Money and Love Institute’s website. Again, not because he was being paid, or even because he stood to benefit - simply because he believed in the book’s message.
In the book world, it can sometimes seem like everything is for sale, including followers, reviews, and awards. As I’ve navigated this new-to-me terrain over the last nine months as a published author, I can’t tell you how refreshing it has been to get to know someone who is in the business of helping people grow their influence (which involves followers, reviews, and awards) and yet is so non-transactional in his approach.
Be a giver (vs. a taker or a matcher)
I’ll bet Bryan is whatcalls a “giver.” In Grant’s book Give and Take, he describes three styles of social interaction:
Givers: those who ask “what can I do for you?”
Takers: those who ask “what can you do for me?”; and
Matchers: those who try to maintain an even balance of give and take
I love a good quiz, and of course Adam Grant has one (you can take it here, if you’d like). It’s rare for people to behave the same way all the time, so your results will likely be a mix, with one style representing your dominant style. My primary style (like most people’s, as it turns out) is matcher. I believe in fairness, and so I seek reciprocity in most interactions. My next highest style is giver, and I certainly do help others without expecting anything in return (I love being a connector and introducing people in my network to one another, for example), but I’ll admit that I have a tendency to keep score in other situations. I’m not proud of that, but it turns out it’s pretty common.
Interestingly, when Grant looked at workplace performance across a range of industries, givers had the highest - and lowest - performance ratings. As long as givers can avoid burning out or helping others so much they don’t get their own work done (both of which can lead to low performance), they can be wildly successful - more so than takers and matchers. And organizations are better off when they hire more givers.
Reminded of this evidence, I’ve resolved to conduct an experiment for the next month. I’m going to consciously stop the mental score-keeping and adopt a giver mindset. I’ll report back on the results of this experiment in a later newsletter.
Everything is a repeated game
It strikes me that one reason being a giver leads to success is that careers are a repeated game - and both matchers and other givers are rooting for givers to win.
What’s a repeated game? Game theory and negotiation theory both draw a distinction between a repeated game or negotiation (i.e., one that happens more than once) and a one-time game or negotiation (i.e., one that happens only once). These theories suggest that when players know they will interact with someone more than once, they take into account the impact of their actions on future interactions differently than when they believe they’re going to interact only once. In other words, they start caring about their reputations.
After working full-time for more than two decades, I firmly believe that everything is a repeated game.
Certainly, you’ll interact with some people only once. But you don’t ever know who those people are in advance, so you’d be wise to assume every relationship is a repeated game. This is why I’ve long given the advice to “stick your landing” when leaving a job - to avoid burning bridges on the way out, because you’ll never know when you’ll encounter your colleagues again.
This came up for me when I thought about the EO workshop, because as I reflected further, I realized that the seeds of that workshop were actually planted 17 years ago, on an Outward Bound trip in the High Sierras I joined before I started business school.
Want to know the wildest part? Ok, this requires a visual.
Below is a picture from that Outward Bound trip in September of 2006. As it turns out, three people in the picture - three people I met on that trip - had something to do with making that EO workshop a success. Nir (in the middle) is, of course, the one who introduced me to Bryan last year.
Jane (on the far left, next to me) also attended the workshop. I introduced her to Bryan earlier this year because she’s publishing a memoir in 2025 (which you will definitely want to read), and Bryan invited her to join the workshop. I was thrilled to see her there; her familiar face and kind words set me at ease before I presented.
Ross (on the right) was home feeding our kids dinner and putting them to bed while I was leading the workshop. Yes, reader, I married him - three years and four days after this picture was taken. And I couldn’t have made the career shift I did without his support - which has included taking on significant caregiving duties while I traveled for the book tour and to launch my new business.
So what? Isn’t this just evidence of the strong social capital effects of attending a small, highly-selective MBA program? Maybe. But I think it’s more than that.
Somehow, that trip feels different than other adventures I had in business school. Maybe it was because we were backpacking through stunning scenery. Maybe it was because the majority of us were “non-traditional” MBAs. Maybe it was because we named the trowel we used to bury our poop (we called it Basil - who knows why?!). Regardless of the reason, almost two decades later, the repeated game of many of those relationships is alive and well. Even with the people I didn’t marry.
I was also reminded of the power of repeated game relationships when I launched this newsletter. I debated turning on the paid subscription feature, and I was blown away when people chose to support me by becoming paid subscribers. I was curious, so I did the math; it turns out more than 50% of my paid subscribers are people I’ve worked with in the past, either in a formal or a volunteer capacity. There’s actually at least one paid subscriber from every job I’ve ever had - including two from my very first “office job” at a small child advocacy non-profit where I interned the summer after my junior year of college (thank you, Terri and Kate!).
Last year, after more than two decades working for organizations in the social impact space, I embarked on a deliberate shift in my own effort to have impact, charting an entrepreneurial path with writing and speaking at the center. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure how my former colleagues would react. Would they be confused? Possibly even feel betrayed? As it turns out, those fears couldn’t be further from the truth; the outpouring of support I’ve received has been tremendous. From my corner of the internet, I hear everyone cheering me on so loudly, and I’m so grateful. This new path is uncertain, even downright scary at times, and I’ll take all the support I can get. I have to imagine their support is due to the fact that I treated our relationships as repeated games, even after we no longer worked together directly.
Thank you for considering becoming a free or paid subscriber and helping me have impact!
This is where I share a book, product, or experience I’m currently swooning over. By sharing these selections with you, I also get to fulfill my goal of supporting other entrepreneurs - especially women and people of color, who all-too-often have uphill paths to success.
As I’ve continued on my tennis journey, I’ve been slowly allowing myself to buy a few items related to my new deliberate rest practice. I tried on various tennis skirts, but they all felt too flouncy and over-engineered to me.
Then, serendipitously, I got an email from Nashville-based designer Ceri Hoover announcing MYKORT, her new line of tennis skorts inspired by her own experience as a fellow later-in-life tennis enthusiast. So I ordered one.
This skort was exactly what I was looking for. It was streamlined, functional, and extremely comfortable - not something I could say about the others I’d tried on.
And, talk about a repeated game! I first “met” Ceri in 2017 when I purchased a dress from her via an Instagram-based slow fashion resale account. She included her card in the package with the dress; I checked out her website and discovered her gorgeous bags. A few years later, on a trip to Nashville to celebrate my 40th birthday (accompanied by four of my closest girlfriends from business school, two of whom I met on the famous Outward Bound trip), I visited Ceri’s store and purchased the caramel suede heels of my dreams. What could have been a one-time interaction with an anonymous Instagram user evolved into a repeated game that is enhancing my tennis experience as well as my closet.
I’m thrilled that Ceri has given me a MYKORT discount code to share with you. In the spirit of my giver experiment, I’m going to share it with all subscribers, not just paid ones. If you enter ABBY15 at checkout, you’ll receive a 15% discount on your next purchase from MYKORT.
Even if you don’t end up making a purchase, I hope this newsletter inspires you to be non-transactional and treat every interaction as one that can evolve into a life-enhancing relationship.