When it comes to success, your friends are just as important as your skills

Having great friends is an important success factor.
Having great friends is an important success factor.
Image: REUTERS/Mike Blake
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When we think about success, we often think about skills, education, personal branding, and job performance. But as in career conversations with managers, new recruits, and other CEOs over the years, I’ve rarely had someone recognize another essential factor in a career path: surrounding yourself with the right people.

Studies confirm that who we spend time around can profoundly impact us. One suggests that you are more likely to gain weight if your best friend has gained weight, even if your best friend lives in another city. Another demonstrates that our happiness is often directly related to our colleagues and friends. Still another shows that our behavior is heavily influenced by our friends.

In a business context, it’s easy to see how your friends and associates influence you. The late entrepreneur and author Jim Rohn put it simply and powerfully when he said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Motivational speaker Les Brown put it more bluntly: “If you run around with nine losers, pretty soon you’ll be the tenth loser.”

Yet we often spend more time picking out an outfit for an interview than we do on deliberately surrounding ourselves with colleagues that will better our chances for success. Here is how to pay more attention to with whom you are spending time.

Identify your targets: Just like a marketing department determines the specific niche of a product, you can identify those people who you believe will further your goals. It may be a potential mentor on the job or a small group of people you see as having the attitude and skills you want to cultivate.

Create your own mastermind group: In some cities where I have lived, these groups are common, and in others they seem unheard of. A mastermind group is a small group of people committed to a common purpose and generally focused on personal and professional development. They challenge and encourage each other to achieve. If you can’t find a suitable group, it’s easy to create one. A clever invitation, a clear purpose, and a few cups of coffee are often how these groups start.

Behave like the people you want to attract: Read what they read. Go to the seminars they go to. I’m not recommending blindly mimicking people, but I have found that conversations are often easier when you have identification points. If we are both reading the same book, we have an immediate conversation starter.

Give more value than you receive: Most successful people I know aren’t looking for value. When I was young, I found a wealthy mentor who taught me about investments. Though I couldn’t pay him, and he wasn’t looking for money, I now understand what he valued: my appreciation, which I expressed numerous times, and my willingness to learn. He saw value in passing on his knowledge to the next generation. In today’s social media world, the ways you can show appreciation include retweets, shares, and comments.

Create a virtual mentor group: Perhaps this should be the first step, because anyone can do it at any time. I have a list of people who inspire me daily. I follow them on social media, read their posts, listen to their podcasts, watch their videos, and let their collective voices fill my thinking. Many of these influential individuals are no longer alive, yet their words continue to inspire me.

Take control of your thoughts: When you begin to surround yourself with the right people, you will notice common characteristics of the successful. You will notice that the successful do not make excuses. They are fully accountable. They take direct control of their thinking.

Eliminate the negative: Eliminate and minimize the negative voices that drag you down. Spend less time with the person who is overly critical. Unfollow, or hide, those who take you places you don’t want to go. I am a big believer in listening to different voices. I don’t eliminate people who think differently than I do. In fact, I seek these people out as it helps me grow in my thinking. If someone is a constant drain on my energy levels, I do limit my exposure. Too many people allow others to dump garbage bags of negativity on a regular basis and then wonder why they feel weighed down. It’s important to meet these people at the door and kindly point them to another destination.

Motivational speaker and author Charlie “Tremendous” Jones used to say over and over in his seminars that “You’re the same today as you’ll be in five years except for two things: the people you meet and the books you read.” It’s important for your career and for your happiness to deliberately and carefully surround yourself with the right people. These people will candidly tell you when you’re off course, motivate you when you’re feeling slow, and inspire great performance when the game is on.

Skip Prichard is the CEO of OCLC and the author of The Book of Mistakes: 9 Secrets to Creating a Successful Future.