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Summary:

Most helpful folks are well-connected to a large network of people, but they don’t build this network by being selfish and difficult to work with. They’re usually generous and “pay it forward” in return for the help they’ve received from other people.

BarCamp Portland

We all know those people who you can go to with a question and know that whenever possible you’ll get a helpful response. They may not know the answer themselves, but they can usually get you a step closer to the person who can get you an answer.

Most of these helpful folks are well-connected to a large network of people, but they don’t build this network by being selfish and difficult to work with. The people I know who fit this mold are usually generous and “pay it forward” in return for the help they’ve received from other people. Paying it forward is something I’ve tried to achieve in my professional life, and here are a few ways that I do it:

  • Career mentoring. While formal mentoring programs work well for other people, they always seem a little forced to me. However, I’m often happy to sit down with people just starting their career or moving into a new one to provide suggestions and ideas for ways to improve. If nothing else, I can share what’s worked for me over the years and hope that they find something useful in it.
  • Sounding board. I like to spend time talking to people who are working on interesting, innovative projects. In most cases, I learn something from them while also providing them with some feedback. Providing a fresh perspective and looking at something for the first time can often uncover things you miss when you’re very close to a subject.
  • Spontaneous connections. Not everyone asks for help or even knows that they could use some assistance. When I see someone struggling with a project or activity, I’ll try to make a spontaneous connection to someone I think might be able to help. However, this only works if it’s unobtrusive and not too pushy. In these cases, I’ll usually point out that I know someone who has been through something similar, then offer to make an introduction. This leaves it up to them to decide if they want the introduction or want to continue on their own. I know that I’ve been grateful for similar connections in the past.
  • Organize events. Organizing in-person events and meetups where people can connect and collaborate is another way to pay it forward. We’ve all attended events organized by other people and a good way to contribute back to the community is by organizing our own events, or helping someone else organize one. This gives other people a place to connect with like-minded people while giving you some additional visibility at the same time.
  • Community participation. There are many existing online communities where you can contribute some expertise or be helpful as time permits. Answering questions or providing some other help as part of an online community is a great way for busy people to pay it forward and help others while making fewer commitments that they might not be able to fulfill when time is tight.

How do you pay it forward?

Photo by Dawn Foster, used with permission.

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  1. Marc Anteparra-Naujock Friday, June 10, 2011

    Good tips Dawn! I’ve seen the impact of your methods.

    For those more introverted types out there, just remember to smile with crows-feet, or give an appreciative double-clasp handshake—sometimes the recognition at the get-go goes a long way.

  2. Vickie Elmer Monday, June 13, 2011

    Marvelous post – wish I’d written this one! You covered many of my favorites. I look for ways to “pass along praise” – something that I pick up from a senior manager to a colleague who wasn’t nearby, something overheard at an event or some nugget I pick up in the media or on a social network that reinforces the person, their business idea or their decision.

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