The Triangle of Trust: Referrals and Reputation Management

Dec 4, 2018

By Seth Cohen

Networking and coaching are at the heart of the Eleven Canterbury modus operandi. When someone asks me about best practices around making introductions I usually advise them to think carefully before making a referral. At Eleven Canterbury we have a personal network of global experts. Notice, I didn’t write “network” — I wrote “personal network.” That’s because we seek to make a personal connection with everyone we affiliate with before admitting them to our “circle of trust,” which is how we think about our ecosystem of colleagues, clients, and friends. But once you act within that circle of trust, the dynamic changes. And while most people know that a recommendation is beneficial to the person being referred, what’s sometimes overlooked is that there are consequences — positive and negative — for everyone involved. It’s important to tease out what those might be before you engage.

The Triangle of Trust
Every referral involves at least three people, the referrer and the two people being introduced to each other, and each has something to gain or lose from the outcome. It’s a given for me that both people in the equation need to be in my circle of trust. But when I enter into the act of reference, I am creating a new and more intimate relationship between the three parties. I like to think of it, not as a circle, but as a triangle, because, no matter what role I play in this process — each relationship is inter-dependent on the other. Ideally, with every referral, you want to make sure all three parties’ benefit. For the person being introduced, a reference is an opportunity to meet someone who may be helpful, either now or in the future. For the person receiving the introduction, a referral opens the door to potential opportunities. While a simple introduction seems like a two-party transaction, the person who is making the reference is also impacted by the act. Each referral you make is a reflection on your professionalism and values and may be perceived as a show of respect (or disrespect) based on the outcome of the introduction.

Seeing Is Believing
You can’t be in a triangle of trust if you don’t have individual confidence in each connection. When I meet someone for the first time, I am a big believer in meeting face to face, even if it’s via a video chat platform. Watching how a person engages in the conversation tells me so much more than a simple phone call. I can tell by their body language if they are genuinely engaged. Are they texting while they are talking? Are they calling me from a busy street corner? Do they look me in the eye when they answer my questions? All these non-verbal cues help me assess what I call the “intangibles.” Introductions are really about deciding if you are willing to put trust in another person. You trust people you know. You believe people you’ve seen in action.

Referral Risk Management
Of course, the most significant potential risk you face in the referral triangle of trust is to make a mistake and introduce someone who is not a good fit. The below “rules to network by” can give you a process or decision tree to help you avoid that problem.

1. Set Your Bar High: Do you personally know and implicitly trust both people? Are they reputable, reliable and friendly?

2. Scrutinize Their Reputation: Have you seen both show ethics and professionalism in their work in the past?

3. Be Honest: Make sure you’re clear about why you are making the introduction.

4. Be Realistic: Does the referral ‘work’ for both people? Even if someone is a friend, you offer no favors if you don’t set both parties up for success.

A Referral is a Reputation Shortcut

The triangle of trust means the first conversation you have with a new introduction already has a built-in familiarity and hopefully a platform of shared values. You don’t have to size up their ethics or professionalism because you know that someone you trust has vouched for them. You don’t have to explicitly question their honesty or transparency — because you know there is a higher than average probability that what they tell you is going to be true, accurate, and current.

Here’s a great example of how this kind of networking works: An old colleague calls — let’s call him Clark, and says he would like me to meet John Smith. John is retiring, and Clark thinks he’ll be a great addition to our personal network. The first thing I do is I ask Clark, “Do you personally and professionally vouch for John’s ethics and professionalism and is he a good guy?” If Clark says, “yes” I know a couple of things. First of all, I know that Clark understands that his credibility and reputation are on the line with both parties and that he will only make the introduction if he feels that both will perceive the effort to have been worthwhile after the fact. A resulting strong connection between John and I will reflect positively on Clark and strengthen his bilateral relationships with both of us and, conversely, a weak link between John and I, or even worse, a perception by either of us that the connection was a waste a time, could weaken Clark’s brand with one or both of us.

It’s Ok To Say “No”
There will be times when you will be asked to make a referral and you either can’t or don’t want to. This can be a delicate situation. However, there are a few things you can do to make sure you don’t damage a relationship. For starters, manage expectations up front. That includes being honest if you can’t or don’t want to make the connection. And, if you don’t feel comfortable making the contact, look for other ways to help. In the end, you don’t want to set yourself or someone up for failure by making an unproductive introduction. No one in the “triangle of trust” benefits from that scenario.

Pay It Forward

Referrals are an essential networking tool. However, here’s what I consider the secret sauce. I make introductions because I like people, not because I’m looking for anything transactional in return. I’m not thinking about how a single introduction is going to help my business, and sometimes the benefit I receive from making a referral is simply the pleasure of helping someone. A quid pro quo mentality is a great way to kill trust and blot of out good will. Simply put, I want the people within my circle of trust to succeed. Setting good people up with great opportunities is a win-win-win situation for everyone involved.

Seth Cohen is the Managing Partner of Eleven Canterbury. He was a member of the Group Managing Board and Head of Group Offshoring at UBS AG.

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