Another year, another Davos. The World Economic Forum, the annual agglomeration of stars from the worlds of politics, business, and the arts is taking place this week in Switzerland, but what actually happens there?

The answer: networking. Yes, I know there are hundreds of panels, on all sorts of serious topics like global security and the transformation of energy, but the real action is around meeting other people.

Leaving aside the inevitable rubber-necking that intrudes in most conversations — you know, when the person you’re talking to is simultaneously looking over your shoulder for someone more important to talk to — hanging out at Davos is one of the best ways to see, and maybe even chat with, people you wouldn’t ordinarily have access to.

Even the most polite of the upper crusters will give you less than a minute to engage.

So if you’re lucky enough to be invited to the world’s most exclusive party let me provide a guide to networking, Davos-style and beyond:

Always look to trade up

Davos is famous for their coloured badges that instantly broadcast where you sit in the hierarchy — light blue is for volunteers, while white badges with a blue line and a dot are for strategic partners who pony up big money to be there. This makes it tough to seek out and talk to someone who lives higher up on the elite scale since they can see you coming and hightail it to their own kind.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. I don’t know whether there is an evolutionary imperative at work here, but lower status people inevitably seek out higher status people, and Davos is as good a place as any to try to make that happen. Where else might you have a chance to bump into Jack Ma from Alibaba or Meg Whitman from Hewlett Packard? 

One technique to try is to clutch your program or purse to your chest, thereby obscuring your lowly status temporarily as you slide up to your prey. But you better have something interesting to say; even the most polite of the upper crusters will give you less than a minute to engage.

Work on social capital, not economic capital

Now let’s say that you are of higher status — a senior executive or government official. It can’t be that you need to fly to Switzerland to meet the people you want to meet. You’re already used to people returning your calls. In this case, why spend your energies trying to make deals or otherwise “working” for that matter? Focus on the social interactions, on building and strengthening relationships, and dare I say it, actually having a good time

It’s about socialising and demonstrating that you’re thoughtful, and hopefully, a friend to be trusted.

The organisers of Davos understand this and tend to cluster similar elites together in packs. So, governors of some 10 central banks around the world share the stage in one panel with the president of the World Bank and the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Many of these people work together, or at least are in regular contact. For them, Davos is not about creating opportunities to meet to discuss business, it’s about socialising and demonstrating to these colleagues that you’re thoughtful, and hopefully, a friend to be trusted.

Networking, superboss style

Despite all the hype, then, there are clear limits to what can be accomplished via networking at Davos. But there is another way, one that goes far beyond occasional conferences, no matter how special, to actually create real benefits from staying in touch with other people. I call this type of networking “superboss-style” as opposed to “Davos-style” because it’s an approach that’s been mastered by leaders who have figured out how to create mutually beneficial interactions with former employees who have left the nest and are working elsewhere.

Steel yourself with just a little bit of self-confidence and get out there doing what people are meant to do.

Superbosses are leaders who are exceptionally good at spawning talent. People like Archie Norman in the UK supermarket business, Tommy Frist in the US hospital industry, and the Finnish orchestra teacher Jorma Panula. Each of these leaders — and many others who emulate their methods — looks at people who have moved on as assets to be cultivated and engaged.  

So what do they do?

  • They stay in touch. Sounds simple, but how often do we actually do that with people who used to work for, or with, us? Rather than saying good-bye and good-riddance, they start with the idea that former employees can continue to add value even after they no longer work for you.
  • They solicit ideas from former team members about anything that can help their business, including identifying potential new talent.
  • They look at former employees as customers. After all, who better than a past team member to know what you’re capable of delivering to customers. Of course some people move on to work for a competitor, but more often than not they end up at potential business partners. McKinsey, the global consultants, considers this a big part of their business model. 
  • They create business opportunities for former employees. For example, Frist was known for taking an idea that was too small for his giant Hospital Corporation of America and spin it off into a new company, installing one of his former charges as CEO. This way he not only supports a former employee, but continues to economically benefit from past relationships.

Lessons for the every man

While you may not get invited to the World Economic Forum at Davos, there is nothing to keep you from employing some of the superboss networking techniques that can add real value to whatever you do. And you don’t even have to walk around with a coloured badge to do so.

I’ve studied and interacted with CEOs for a long time, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s that they’re really no different than anyone else. They are people, and all of us not matter what we do are products of the same evolutionary process that has made us value social interactions. So whether at Davos or not, steel yourself with just a little bit of self-confidence and get out there doing what people are meant to do. Network.

Sydney Finkelstein is the Steven Roth Professor of Management and director of the Leadership Center at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. His new book, to be published in February, is Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow of Talent (Portfolio/Penguin, February 2016).

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