Use your knowledge of people to be a connector and a referral expert says Karen Cornwell

As an assistant, people often come to you with questions. You can choose to:

  1. Simply answer the question yourself
  2. Say you don’t know
  3. Refer them to the expert

Building Your Referral Network

Choosing to just answer the question is easy, assuming you know the answer. However, the world keeps changing, sometimes faster than we can keep up with it. That’s why it’s great to know where the expertise lies in the organization.

While it really should be OK to say, “I don’t know”, often you will be able to reach out and tap into your sources to find the needed information more efficiently than others can. Every time you do this, you are building your referral network, making it more powerful. So, responding with a “Let me look into it and I’ll get back to you” is a perfect response.

Often, we don’t realize how much we actually know about others’ expertise.

Implementing #3 may be your most appropriate option. Keep in mind that it’s not your job to know everything; instead think of it as knowing who to ask. To do this effectively you may need to ask a few questions to understand what the person is trying to accomplish. Yes, it’s going to take a little more of your time to do this, but you will also be gaining knowledge that you can subsequently pass on in future interactions.

If you don’t have detailed knowledge of the subject matter, you are still the most likely person to be able to get them closer to the person that has answers for them.

Even if you don’t get them all the way there, you get them one step closer and that makes you a definite asset to the organization. In fact, teaming up with the other key connectors can really magnify your network. Often the best question to ask is: “What are you trying to accomplish, perhaps I can recommend some resources?” Maybe you need to make a few phone calls to find the right person, that’s OK. Now you are leveraging the entire team and creating a knowledge network which becomes indispensable as it grows stronger. One of the hardest things to manage in a company is information and any time you can help people connect the dots your knowledge and ability to connect people will be appreciated.

Manage the Referral Process

To come up with the right referral strategy it is helpful to understand some differences. In my book, I define several dichotomies based on how people process information, perceive the world, and what they value. I label the two extremes ‘community-minded’ and ‘independent-minded’. We can be anywhere along a line between these two exteremes, although often you will find that women may lean toward community-minded and men toward independent-minded, but it is better to look at their behavior as an indicator. I am very independent-minded in many work-related areas but community-minded in others.

One of the dichotomies is how people treat information. The independent-minded like to barter information while the community-minded prefer to share information as shown in the dichotomy below.

be a connector

The community-minded will frequently offer up information that they feel may help another person. Then it becomes a favor to you and your executive, overcoming the inertia associated with the lack of a relationship.

The independent-minded use information as a form of currency. They barter with information, seldom offering it up spontaneously. You must ask them for it. Sometimes you need to evoke higher powers to get them to share it. (“X (your executive) thought your expertise was needed with this.”) Here, note that you are evoking the authority of your executive as well as giving credit to the expert for being an expert. Other times, you may be better off framing it as a trade (“make sure to offer them something in return”). Bartering, after all, is a game and it’s no fun if both people aren’t playing, at least that’s how the independent-minded think.

Managing the Power Dynamic

Another important thing that often requires managing in referrals is the power dynamic. I am quite confident you have seen this show up and wreak havoc before.

One of the characteristics of the independent-minded is that they want to maintain their independence and freedom, sometimes at all costs, while our community-minded revere interdependence; their intimacy with others is what makes them thrive. When either encounters the other’s style, they judge them by their own standards. This usually results in misunderstandings that often can be taken very personally.

The independent-minded need others to see them as equal or better, so they are not inclined to do anything that may lower their status in the eyes of others. Their credibility and self-image are always on the line. The other characteristic that the independent-minded prize is their independence – it is interwoven into their status. They want to make their own decisions, they don’t want help, and they certainly don’t want to be told what to do. They feel that their independence being threatened could lower their status and push them down.

The community-minded, on the other hand, always want to build and preserve their relationships. They do everything they can to level the playing field and put people on an even footing. What’s most important to them is that the lines of communication are open.  While the independent-minded want independence, the community-minded need interdependence to ensure the needs of the community are being met.

Be a Connector

You can easily see how these two sets of needs inherently oppose each other.

Using the Power Dynamic

How can you use this power dynamic to make the workplace more efficient? If the expert you are sending someone to is very independent-minded, then it may help to recommend to the information seeker to couch their issue with: ‘I have a problem that I think you can help me solve’. This puts them this puts them down one position elevating the expert.

If the person who is seeking information is also strongly independent-minded, then you may need to evoke the power of higher authority. This is where it may help to tell the expert and the person seeking information the phrase “X (your executive) thought your expertise was needed with this.” This puts both the expert and the information seeker at the same level with your executive as a higher authority making a suggestion.

If you have concerns about evoking your executive’s authority, you may want to check in with them, or generically let them know that you may from time to time evoke their authority to handle connecting people to the right information. Most will be delighted to have you handle these issues to make work flow more smoothly.

Finally, if your expert is community-minded then telling the information seeker to use: “tell her I sent you” is like giving them a calling card from someone else in the community. It’s akin to communicating: “This person is part of our community and needs your support now.”  This can be particularly helpful if the two people don’t know each other.

Manage Your Connections

Managing your connections can be an entire article unto itself. The focus here is to look beyond your immediate needs. When you bump into other assistants, find out what goes on in their area. One day someone will ask who’s involved and you’ll be able to help make the connection more quickly. Likewise, for all kinds of resources, get to know your business partners within HR, IT, Facilities, even the Air Conditioner guy. You never know when you will need their support. And remember to be a good partner to them when they come with questions you can answer. It takes all of us to make organizations run smoothly.

Be a Referral Expert

Being a referral expert can really make the workplace more efficient. If if you are not doing so already, ask your executive to allow you to sit in on staff meetings. Listen to understand who is working on which projects, and what issues they are facing. If this is new for you, it may take some time to understand but soon you will be offering up referrals in the meeting to make work go more smoothly for all.

Karen Cornwell spent her career in Tech; she lived it, learned from it, and wants to change the tide for future technology aficionados. Her lifelong quest is to improve innovation and drive top-line growth for technology companies. To do this we must ... (Read More)

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