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Forget AI, Relationships = Relevance, Here's Why

Sitting eye-to-eye with someone who has honed their craft well beyond Malcom Gladwell’s reported 10,000 hours of mastery is always a revelation. 

So it was a treat to share a cup of tea by the fire on a cold day in London a few weeks ago with Sanyin Siang, the woman that Thinkers50 has ranked one of the #1 Coaches in the world. 

We talked about her new book on superpowers, our quest to help people unlock their potential, kids, and of course, the power of the red dress!

The conversation felt like a jazz improvisation, thoughts and perspective interweaving to create new versions of the melody. 

What was the melody? 

How to stay relevant in this new world of work!

If I had to sum it up in 3 chords, what we came to is:

  1. Positional power is declining.
  2. Knowledge is fleeting.
  3. Relationships are the key to remaining relevant.

Let’s dig into each one by turn.

1. Positional power is declining.

CEO tenures are shorter. The Mad Men of yesterday are yielding to the upstarts of tomorrow. Disruptors don’t care if you have an MBA or a VP title.

You might get to the top of an organization only to find that the organization itself is crumbling with company life spans decreasing (source: Innosight, who we also met in London that week).

A focus on seeking and finding status and guarding it with your life is less useful but more prevalent as the anxiety around us being better off than our elders (and our kids, being better off than us) is at all-time highs.

2. Knowledge is fleeting.

Data, accelerated compute power and advanced algorithms, technological development is moving at quantum speed.

Information is commoditized. We’ve gone from digitizing the world’s information to generative AI supercharging our ability to plan the best travel itinerary, generate a consulting deck or serve up compelling responses to customer service complaints. AI advancements, coupled with accelerated compute power, enhanced data and storage and cloud computing enable disease diagnosis, driverless cars and transportation optimization the likes of which we haven’t fully understood.

Everyone now has access to the available information. Soon most will have access to how to solve key problems.

While learning new ideas and connecting the dots is still important, the gatekeepers of knowledge have left the building and with it your competitive advantage in hoarding information.

 3. Relationships are the new competitive advantage.

At a fundamental level, we are all working on the most basic challenges of survival. How to live better by eradicating poverty or disease, how to ensure the survival of the planet, how to ensure collective prosperity (see UN SDGs).

Solving big problems requires access to the right people coming together to get things done.

When Sanyin came to London, she asked her friend for introductions to key people to meet and he immediately introduced her to a former Prime Minister. The minister arranged the appointment not because of her position or title, but because of their mutual friend. Relationships matter.

So what does this mean for you?

The knee-jerk reaction to managing uncertainty is to try to outrun the high-speed knowledge train. An entire industry (which I partly contribute to) encourages us to sign up for the shiny new AI course!

Learning is more than stretching our minds; it bridges us to others with similar interests. Learning is ostensibly about knowledge; but learning which enables us to work together is really about the relationships you form around a common base of knowledge and language and shared experience.

Beware identity addiction. In the mid-90s, there was a digital guru at Time Warner who had enormous power, fame and was changing the world.

At the time I thought, if only I could have that role my life would be perfect!

I can’t remember their names now.

What are they doing? Probably living rich lives. Unless they spend most days lamenting their fall from the top seat, the magazine covers and the adulation of silly geeks like me.

Many of the people I’ve worked with on transitions had high-level positions. They led the type of lives that allowed them to go through the fast lanes at immigration and get recognized by acolytes. When it came time to give those titles up, it was a difficult transition if they had not done work to find their own intrinsic value and contribution.

Re-frame the time you invest in your relationships as true ROI. These are the bonds that allow you to call upon someone with creative and divergent thinking to scale your own ideas.

Develop people whom you can call when you need to solve a problem, expand your horizon or get picked up after a fall. In short, invest in the new competitive advantage.

Be a bridge to people not in the roomExecutives have been taught to read the room more than they have been taught to notice who is not in the room. If you’ve been fortunate enough to develop good relationships, you definitely have others to thank for that. People who took a chance and staked their own reputation to introduce you and vouch for you.

Do that for others. Clear that extra hurdle that people outside of the main group have in meeting the right people. Introduce them to a new professional acquaintance that can supercharge their work.

Modupe Akinola and Chris Hemsworth (Columbia Magazine)

Modupe Akinola, another speaker at Thinkers50 who focuses on how stress influences workplace performance (she even taught Chris Hemsworth/Thor), reminded us to look for not just what is common, but what is different to embrace it. The value of the relationships we do have is stronger when divergent. Noah did not take a bunch of other guys on to the Arc with him to survive the floods.

This is not entirely new. As the old adage goes, It’s who you know, not what you know. What is different now in an era of distributed work, rapid change and enabling technology is that the other elements continue to shrivel while relationships are the new relevancy.

What do you think is key to staying relevant in the new world of work?


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