Get To Work: With Suzy Welch

Suzy Welch: The career secret I wish I'd known in my 20s

Getting ahead in business is all about who you know, right?

Well, according to best-selling management author and CNBC contributor Suzy Welch, it's not just who you know. It's how much you help them.

"If there's one thing I wish I had known about business in my 20s," Welch tells CNBC, "it's that there is this huge, important, powerful, invisible economy that I refer to as the Favor Economy."

Author and business journalist Suzy Welch.
Author and business journalist Suzy Welch.

It's about "putting yourself out on a limb for somebody else with no expectation of immediate payback," she says. "For instance, offering yourself as a reference, placing a call to help someone land a job, or working a weekend or holiday so others can be with their families. Essentially, its currency is performing small acts of kindness and generosity as a way of life."

Without a doubt, Welch says, many people who enter the working world out of college, as she did, know deep in their bones that "what goes around comes around" and that helping others is both the right thing to do and very probably good for your professional trajectory, too.

"The problem is, during college, you also hear a lot of messages from peers and from the popular culture telling you success is a zero-sum game — that for you to win, others have to lose," she says. "And that can sort of have a numbing effect. You hit the work world not sure how much you should be helping others."

"Know it's there and understand you're a player in it." -Suzy Welch, best-selling management author and CNBC contributor

Usually, after a few years of working, Welch says, most people wake up and realize that likeability and teamwork matter, sometimes even more than talent.

"But why wait to have that realization?" she asks. "Start your career knowing the Favor Economy is there, and understand you're a player in it. Either you participate, which is good, or you don't, which is definitely going to hold you back."

Welch is quick to point out that the career-enhancing effect of "pay it forward" behaviors is not new, and, in fact, was thoughtfully explored in the best-selling business book "Give and Take" by Wharton professor Adam Grant.

In "Give and Take," Grant argues that authentically seeking to help others is the most effective way to build a network of people who are, in turn, willing to help you succeed. "If we create networks with the sole intention of getting something," Grant writes, "we won't succeed."

On the other hand, "the more I help out, the more successful I become," he says.

Incidentally, Welch notes, the Favor Economy is not just for people entering the workforce.

"Some of the most successful CEOs I know actually spend a huge portion of their day helping people get jobs," Welch says, "or picking up the phone and calling someone and offering them advice."

"I think they learned very early in their careers both how gratifying and how effective it is to help people; it's how things get done," she says. "And 30 or 40 years on, it's pretty much all they do."

Video by Brandon Ancil.

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