As we traversed the Thousand Islands “Millionaires Row” earlier this week, I thought about both current and historical wealth and relationships/power, and the influences and forces that shape construction marketing success.
Our captain, Robert Merkley, combines the traits of the genuinely wealthy people worthy of admiration: He has practical down-to-earth competence (as a masonry retailer to the region’s contractors and developers) yet plenty of community spirit and genuine philanthropic values. He also has — reflecting his circumstances — lots of connections.
During a break at the Boldt Castle, he described his frustrations in having a phone connection made. He, like the rest of the masses, started off with the call centre — and received the run-around, because his request was a bit unusual — the phone company would need to take care of the “final mile” by having the crew use a boat. This of course didn’t fit the standard parameters and the call centre clerk was flabbergasted.
Then he remembered he knew a very senior phone company executive through his shared participation on a charitable board. “I don’t usually like to pull strings, but this time decided to do it,” he said. Within hours, his problem was solved.
We passed the island homes of the rich and famous — and there were plenty of structures owned/built by people who had made their fortune in the local construction industry. Then we passed an island with what looked like a nondescript cabin.
“That’s the island that is owned by some sort of secret society,” one of my colleagues remarked.
As a journalist, I’m always interested in uncovering secret societies. Fortunately, this becomes relatively easy with Google. Within a few minutes, I discovered we had indeed passed Deer Island, owned by the Russell Trust Association, as a retreat for The Skull and Bones secret society, associated with Yale undergraduate students (and plenty of US political leaders who won’t tell what goes on with the secret society because, well, it IS a secret society.)
Again, I put my connections to work. I know one Yale graduate, a person who shared a tent with me traversing Africa for three months many years ago. So I sent him a note on Facebook’s personal message system.
“Yesterday in cruising the 1000 islands as part of a reward for some charitable support, we passed Deer Island, with reference to a mysterious secret society owning it. I looked it up this morning and found it is owned by the Russell Trust, associated with Skull and Bones. Do you recall this secret society from your time at Yale?’
He answered: “It’s very famous. Fortunately I was ineligible since I was law and not undergrad student” and he forwarded a link to an Atlantic Magazine article describing the society.
Ah for connections and networking, communications and relationships, wealth and power.
If we look at the “power curve” and understand the disparity between the ultra-rich and the rest of us — and the trends towards increasing wealth concentration, it goes without saying that if you want to achieve significant success you might want to be in a place where you can associate, connect, and communicate with these powerful individuals. Sure, much money can be earned by serving the masses, but if you want to move things quickly, connecting at the top will undoubtedly bring the greatest immediate returns. (This is reflected in George Boldt’s story — the information here isn’t anything new, of course.)
Now, the logical follow-up question could be: How to you access this power, and apply it?
There are a few common-sense rules.
First, you need the foundational competence at whatever you are doing to qualify. Just having proximity to power doesn’t do much if you can’t contribute as an equal (or for that matter, superior) within your expertise area. This doesn’t mean you need be a scholarly or financial genius. If you are really good at paving driveways or (in the case of the Thousand Islands) building boathouses, you might have a natural entry point.
Second, you will most likely gain access more quickly by contributing sincerely to the charity or cause most important to the movers and shakers in your intended community. If you are pragmatic about this, you might want to do some research about the community groups, charities, and boards/foundations the people you wish to know support. (They tend to travel together.) Then you must figure out how to make truly worthy contributions, presumably using your talent or special skills. In my case, this often translates to writing, communications, media and publicity, but your contributions could be different. Fund-raisers are always welcome, of course!
Third, you must be sincerely committed to a long-range approach and not hope nor expect any sort of quick or for that matter any return on investment. If you are contributing to a charity or cause, you should contribute because the cause is important, not to win access to the key relationships. This may sound paradoxical, but if you actually aim for the self-serving goal, you will most likely fail. But if you take a selfless approach to the process, you will build the lasting relationships everyone truly values.
Finally, always, respect everyone you encounter along the way and share your best talents and abilities. This means no matter what happens, you’ll gain the rewards of contributing without worrying about whether the power-access happens.
I wonmy place on the boat by helping out on The Ride fund-raising for The Ottawa Hospital (and will be very tired after five hours and 108 km of cycling in a few days). I made my connections with the Yale graduate by deciding to take an overland Africa trip as my postgraduate university education. More recently, Google has invited me to an inner-circle Top Contributors group, with meet-ups and summits and plenty of access to the Internet-era decision-making power, because I voluntarily contributed on a help forum without worrying about financial/personal return.
These connections and others have helped my business over the years.
The real power here isn’t in the trappings, or connections, or access. It is in contributing, supporting, making a difference and helping out. And that may be the greatest irony. Allowing that you need the fundamental competence in your speciality, the doors are quite wide open to the “secret society” of wealth and power, if you forego selfishness and truly contribute your talents and initiative.