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Could your success boil down to merely 150 people?

This week I attended a conference in San Diego where Patti DeNucci, author of The Intentional Networker, encouraged the audience to be “on purpose” with their networking efforts. During her presentation, she reminded us of anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s theory that most people’s brains can only support about 150 relationships at a time, in a high quality fashion. Of course, that number challenges everyone who has ever built a large database, e-newsletter or social media following (including myself) to reconsider the efficacy of their networking efforts.

So I began thinking about my 25 year career speaking and teaching and writing.

How many people had really helped me to reach my goals?

As I went through the names in my mind, it became quite obvious that I have 150 or so strong relationships that had made the largest contributions to my success. That’s not to say I hadn’t “talked” to vastly more people at events, via articles and videos, and online. But the more I thought about it, I started seeing the distinction.

On one hand, there are the vast numbers of people who can “connect” to us online, enjoy our contributions, give feedback and even share our content with others. We enter into light conversation with them staccato-style. These can be fun, helpful and productive connections that exchange ideas, opinions, and business opportunities from time to time. Mostly, these relationships stay light; they are polite in public spaces. And we can have tens of thousands of these people, who form general acquaintances. Upon close examination, I find that my interactions with these people must remain more superficial, simply because of volume.

Consider your own social media experience: We treat large numbers of our connections like we treat others on an airplane: We hardly give them the time of day. We exchange a glance, scroll past them in our media streams, but don’t engage them. Being connected to them is nice – but not much more.

That’s where Dunbar’s 150 applies today more than ever. Perhaps the actual number is larger, say 200 or 250, in the modern era. But the central point isn’t the total. It’s the limit to the number of quality relationships we can support at any time. When I look back important moments – from accomplishing goals to getting new business – I discover I could probably fit that sphere of influence into a vintage Rolodex. Those key relationships are few, specific and intentional: People whose call I’d take at any time. People who make a difference. I’d never think of my 150 as prospects, leads or even business contacts, because in my mind, they are complete people, not means to ends.

My 150 and I have a high incentive to stay together.

We contribute to each other’s growth. We help each other enjoy life, from our hobbies to our careers. Yet I would never think of contacting anyone in my 150 with the idea that I’ll get some business out of David today! 

That’s why within our 150, magic occurs all by itself.

So it seems to me that Dunbar’s 150 theory is an almost perfect – and desperately needed antidote – to all the companies bleating  strategies for more friends, more contacts, more leads! The sales world is swamped with lead generators, even as every measurable benchmark tells us the vast majority of leads never convert into valuable outcomes. There’s absolutely no way a person could engage 5 or even 10 “more” leads a day in a meaningful way, using any medium. They would have to treat those leads at an acquaintance level, auto-responding with tasteless templates of content that have no hope of building trust.

Sales is not the same as e-commerce: What Amazon can do with more traffic cannot be replicated by a sales person.

Relationship building wouldn’t stand a chance. Because trust can’t be auto-built.

So here’s the challenge.

Look at your own experience. Who was there when you experienced your most important growth moments in the past? Make a list of the people who challenged you, encouraged you, taught you, and even did business with you. These are your 150. You’ll find them on your list over and over again, next to every stage of your success. You’ll discover how excited the list makes you – how much you looked forward to catching up with each of them again – soon. You might notice that even those you haven’t engaged in a while don’t seem that far away. Time or distance won’t have dulled the connection, if you reached out to them today.

What will you do with your list of 150? Protect it. Nurture it. Cherish is. Reach out to it. They will encourage you, educate you, challenge you to grow far better than 100 new faceless followers or 10 new leads in your inbox today. You will grow by virtue of the relationship, not because you have a discount, special offer, or snappy auto-responder.

In my experience, I’ve learned an interesting axiom of success. Most people don’t need more leads. They need more relationships.

Who are your 150 that matter most?