How to Build Social Capital Authentically 

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How to Build Social Capital Authentically 

By Sara Madera, Career Coach, Plan Creatively 

If your 2024 goals include getting prompted, changing careers, or growing your network, it’s likely that creating and cultivating social capital should be part of the plan. If reaching out makes you cringe, consider how you can make it work for you. 

While expertise, hard work, and dedication are all important ingredients for getting what we want out of life – it’s hard to overestimate the role that social capital plays in professional and personal success. After all, we’ve all heard the expression, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.”

Yet so many of us find the process of building social capital unappealing, overwhelming, or downright scary. Often the people we see most focused on networking come off as over the top or fake – which is a perception most of us want to avoid, and for good reason.

But having social capital (or ‘juice’ as some people call it) is simply about building relationships. And the more genuine and real, the better. The key is finding a way to be authentic to yourself while making useful and mutually beneficial connections. 

Here are some tips to start building your social capital without feeling like a door-to-door salesperson.

Connect with people you like and admire

Too often, people start networking by focusing on people in a certain position (“I want to connect with the head of this company”). But a better way to build your network is to reach out to people you like or admire. Assuming you have shared values, interests, or approaches – you’ll have a foundation for creating a genuine connection. Make sure to use your natural curiosity about them to ask questions – and do more listening than talking. This will help you decide if they are indeed someone that excites you and that you want in your network.

Of course, it’s also a good idea to try to diversify your network when possible. As you get more confident in creating connections – consider reaching out to people outside your immediate community or industry (but still looking for people that you respect). 

Think about giving, not getting

When making new connections, adopt the credo of Max Goodwin from the television show New Amsterdam – “How can I help?” Let them know that you can be of service to them. If they ask how – be ready with an answer that ideally showcases your skills, strengths, or time. Maybe you have some ideas based on the information you gathered in learning about them and can respond with, ‘I’d be happy to walk your dog when I’m walking mine’ or ‘I heard that you need information on that project. I’m meeting with the project lead next week. Would you like my meeting notes?’  

Don’t overcommit just to be nice

It’s easy to tell someone you’ll help them. But given that we are all so busy with our normal lives, it’s harder to actually deliver. Before offering your help (or saying yes to someone who comes asking for your help later), make sure that you can keep your commitment. Agreeing to help someone and then not doing it (or not doing it well) can degrade your social capital faster than not offering in the first place.

If capacity is an issue, it might help to create some criteria for deciding when it’s worth it for you to devote your valuable time and effort. For example, maybe you are looking for opportunities to help others while practicing a new skill and getting an opportunity to represent your community. This type of criteria will help you zero in on when you should say yes, and keep you moving towards your goals as you build your network.

Don’t be afraid to leverage your relationships when the time comes

While giving is a big part of building social capital, the reason for building it is also to receive help yourself. So, when the time comes that you need something, don’t be shy. If you’ve done the work to create and nurture trust, you should feel confident to make your needs known and ask for help. If you are afraid of being too transactional or needing to keep score, stay focused on the fact that you’ve cultivated a mutually beneficial partnership with someone who is invested in your success as much as you are.

Think long-term

Admittedly, building relationships takes time. It’s important to consider this a long-term project and every week think about one small act you can do to move closer to your goal of building social capital. The more time spent developing a strong, aligned network on the front end, not only will it be in place longer, but also the more pay-off you will receive on the back end when you need it, like networking for a new job, building a business, or helping you out in a pinch. 

With a bit of forethought, creating social bonds can be a great way to deepen relationships at work or in your community and to extend your impact in areas that are important to you. If it starts to feel transactional or overwhelming, take a step back and consider: does this person agree with my understanding of the world, is this conversation about them or about what I need, and is this the right task for me, based on my criteria. With this frame in mind, you’ll soon be rich in social capital! 

Sara is a career coach for working moms and the founder of Plan Creatively. After leading organizations and departments across the globe, Sara became a coach after realizing the favorite part of every job was helping her team realize their goals. A naturally good listener and mother of 2, she supports working moms to ‘end the juggle’ and find time for themselves.

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