“I’d like to call a friend,” is a phrase popularised by the television game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire which ran from 1999 to 2019 on ABC. In the show, contestants had to answer multiple-choice questions within 15-45 seconds. With each right answer, they could either stop and take home their accumulated earnings, or risk what they’d banked so far and continue to the next question. Each decision to keep going was a double-or-nothing bet with the possibility of earning over one million dollars for fifteen consecutive correct answers.


If players were stumped, they had several ‘lifelines’ they could use to help them. One was called 50/50, reducing the multiple choices from four to two. Another was asking the audience for help. And one lifeline became the oft-used phrase today, “I’d like to call a friend,” which allowed contestants to call someone they knew for help. 

In today’s business world, this would more commonly be referred to as “social capital.” 

Too Much to Know

Just a few generations ago, know-how and information were slow to change.  A journeyman or master of trade could progress through their career using almost the same skills and processes they started with. Knowledge transfer occurred by taking on and training apprentices.

Through most of the 1900s, a person could know almost everything there was to know about their field.  If there were new techniques or approaches, they were introduced at a manageable pace.

This has all changed; today it is impossible to know everything there is to know even within a given field or profession. The amount of ‘know-how’ of any job has been accelerating at an exponential rate and will continue to do so in the future. Various studies and books attempting to quantify how much information exists confirm this phenomenon.

As leaders, this poses a challenge: how can we possibly ensure our own skills and knowledge, as well as the skills of our employees, with such exponential growth of information?

Selective Learning and T Shaped People

selective learning

Part of the answer is learning what not to know, but where to find it. You don’t need to know all the details of the Canadian Tax Act, but you should know where to find it. You can’t remember how to calculate Net Present Value, but a quick internet search can give you the answer. You may even struggle to know the names of the leaders in your client organizations, but you likely have a great CRM system for that support. Each of these examples involves facts and data which are easily accessible. There’s no need to retain this information in our minds.

Skills on the other hand are different. Having a difficult conversation with an employee about their performance, writing software for an enterprise system, executing an effective interview, or negotiating a strategic supplier relationship are processes that involve facts and data, but more so take time and practice to develop.

We can’t be good at everything. If we try, we become “a mile wide and an inch thick, and quickly evaporate,” as a long-time business partner of mine used to say.

Instead, we must be selective. We need to choose which skills to develop deeply ourselves, and which we can outsource or hire in the people around us. Thus, the value of surrounding ourselves with people who are different from us both in capabilities and perspectives. This collectively is called the Knowledge Capital in our organizations and is a combination of technical, operational, and leadership skills.

The phrase “T Shaped People” was popularized by IDEO CEO Tim Brown. He spoke about hiring people with specialization and deep skill in one area, the vertical line of the “T”, and some level of functional skill in a broad range of areas — being the horizontal line. The ideal organization is one where there are people with diverse specializations coupled with broad threshold competencies in areas like teamwork, collaboration, time management, and so on.

What Exactly is Social Capital and Why Is It So Important?

Beyond the competencies we have personally and within our organizations, what other resources are there? 

There are in fact three kinds of ‘capital’ employed in every business:

  1. Financial Capital – economic funding, typically expressed in dollars.
  2. Knowledge Capital – the collective skills and know-how we and our teams have.
  3. Social Capital – the relationships we have with people.

This final category, social capital, is a significant and often underutilized resource. When we spoke to Wayne Baker, Director of the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, he told us that, “People don’t ask for help as often as they should and it’s a missed opportunity.”

Social Capital Theory

social capital theory

Humans tend to have what he calls an “over-reliance on self-reliance.” Baker’s research shows that people who nurture relationships, both strong and loose ties, are the most productive in today’s workplace. There is a myth that people don’t want to help. Baker says people in general, even loose relationships we have, are generally more ready to help than we expect.

We’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with John Spence several times in the past decade. He is a wealth of knowledge and is recognized as one of the top global thought leaders in strategy and business. If you follow his blog, you will know that he repeatedly queries his CEO and Senior Executive network for suggestions, answers to key questions, and patterns of success.

One of the added benefits of today’s social platforms — Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and others — is that separation between people is shrinking. The traditional seven degrees of separation between any two individuals on earth is now less than four according to some research studies. 

“Our optimal algorithm finds an average degree of separation of 3.43 between two random Twitter users, requiring an average of only 67 requests for information over the Internet to Twitter. A near-optimal solution of length 3.88 can be found by making an average of 13.3 requests.”

Therefore, the opportunity to connect with someone who has the knowledge, information or skill set we need is near limitless.

Leveraging Business Relationships

There is no sign that the growth of information, data, and know-how will slow any time soon. But recognizing and utilizing our relationships – our social capital – is easier now than ever before if we are willing to use it. 

For leaders, this means:

  1. Being Humble – Recognize that it is impossible to know everything and be willing to say, “I don’t know.”
  2. Finding Social Diversity – Put social capital to good use. Surround yourself with people different from yourself with different perspectives, skills, backgrounds, and experiences.
  3. Creating an Asking Culture – Create an “asking culture” and lead by example. Make it ok for people to ask for help and admit their shortcomings including blind spots and biases.
  4. Providing and Getting Help – Ask for help regularly and be generous in helping others. The adage, “givers get” is a truism, and those that give tend to receive more often.

Organizations need to make the best use of all three types of capital – financial, knowledge and social – to be successful. But don’t underestimate the potential of this third category, social capital, in helping to achieve your goals and strategies.

Create More Social Capital In Your Organization

If you’re ready for a more customized approach to human resource management, the Results team excels in this area! Book a chat with a member of our team for professional advice or take advantage of one of our many free resources — like this Ultimate Handbook to Hiring and Motivating Talent ebook

talent lead generation