Netflix’s Clarance Avant documentary is a captivating look at the life of the music industry architect, but it’s also an illustration of the power of connection.
If you haven’t already, I highly encourage and strongly urge you to watch The Black Godfather, Netflix’s doc on one of the most powerful black men in entertainment, Clarence Avant. It’s not just a music and entertainment doc, though. It’s a primer for a fruitful and impactful life.
I won’t go into his whole history here, but the core of Mr. Avant’s power and influence is his relationships. They’ve granted him a level of access and respect from entertainment to politics that few can say they enjoy.
Last week I had the pleasure of participating in a panel of entertainment professionals about diversity in entertainment, and I said the word “relationships” so many times — without even realizing it — that several people quoted it back to me as we were talking afterward. In the digital era, we’ve lost the art of cultivating and nurturing relationships; not just with friends, but professional ones as well. Or when we do make connections, they are often tenuous and more about a hook up than genuine building. People say they want to network or link up when they really mean they want something you can provide. It’s transactional.
When people ask me about my career path, my two part answer has been largely the same for at least the last decade:
- I fell into this career by accident, and
- It’s been all about relationships. All of it.
“The state of being connected”
When I was working for Reggie Ossè (AKA Combat Jack) and his partner Ed Woods a hundred years ago in 1998 at their law firm, I would hear them ask each other and the other lawyers in the office, “Do you have a relationship with (insert name of person they were hoping to reach/do business with/get access to).”
Not “Do you have their number?” Not even “Do you know them?”
Do you have a relationship with them.
It struck me that the usage of “relationship” was key.
Relationships got me from that law office to Bad Boy, because I was able to call Harve Pierre and ask if I could come intern for him.
At Bad Boy, I met one of my now long-time friends and mentors, who’s been responsible for three jobs during my career. One she hired me for directly, and two she recommended me for — my two most formative jobs, in fact. Relationships got me to Columbia when an exec thought of me as he was looking for someone to fill a marketing role. Relationships made it easy for me to come back to Sony and join Epic after I left Columbia to go to a TV network and realized it wasn’t a good fit. Relationship is why John Legend asked for me to join his team, and relationships are why my old team at Columbia when I was John’s product manager was happy to learn I’d be working with them again from the other side.
The value in good relationships really hit home for me when I branched out on my own last year. The number of genuine “What do you need?” “Let me introduce you to…” “I mentioned your name to…” phone calls and emails I received affirmed that I’d been a good steward of my connections. Relationships got me my first several monthly retainers, one with someone I hadn’t worked with in years, but had always stayed in contact with and occasionally sought input from. I pride myself on there being very few people I’ve worked with in any capacity that I can’t call on if needed. A good relationship can take you leaps and bounds beyond just skill and talent — especially when you actually have skill and talent, but this is a practice. Something you do intentionally.
I’m admittedly not the best at cold networking, but I’m very good at establishing and maintaining connections — even if I don’t do it in person as much as I’d like. I’ve gone on a couple of mini-rants on Twitter about this before, but watching the documentary today inspired me to revisit and share my personal rules for relationships and connection.
1. Relationships are currency.
This is my Golden Rule. I have pissed people off, often, because I won’t pass music on, help get a meeting, send a pitch, get tickets… Listen, if you squander or abuse access, you will lose that access. And me helping with a call or a contact or a connection is essentially a co-sign, and I gotta keep my credit in good standing! Now, if I believe that something is either mutually beneficial or I have confidence enough in what you’re doing to make the connect, I’m all in. I have been more than happy to make a call, send a note or make a connection when it’s right. And especially when it’s someone who I know would do the same for me, which leads to #2…
2. Relationships can’t be one-directional.
Granted, when talking about a mentorship or big homie/little homie relationship, someone has more to offer. But even if it can’t be exact quid pro quo, the goal shouldn’t be just to have a plug. Know when you’ve gone back to the well too often or too frequently. Be mindful of what your asks mean for them in terms of time, effort, labor and general put-themselves-out-there-ness. There are three people in my life whose calls I screen, and I’ve known all of them for years. So why do I screen? Because they take too much, and haven’t made good use of the times I did throw an alley-oop. At the same time, I’m very careful of how often I’m hitting someone in my life for something, and times when it’ll be inconvenient, they probably have a bunch of people hitting them up for something similar, etc. Be self-aware.
3. But they should be altruistic.
Mr. Avant helped people negotiate deals, broker the creation of companies, and get massive checks. And he didn’t ask for a stake or a kick back or a finder’s fee or none of that. While you may not be in the position to help someone start a label, the lesson is to move on behalf of someone else solely based on how it benefits you.
3. Don’t ever, ever burn bridges unless you were at war.
Even if people don’t t care for me personally, most can never say I wasn’t professional or good at what I do. But there’s a few folks I straight showed my ass to, and in those cases I was good with my decision, then and now. When I started working with John, which meant working with the exact same team that I left at Columbia, it could have been incredible awkward if I’d rolled out like “f*ck ya’ll losers” when I quit the company two years prior. Creative industries are small, especially for black folks. And the longer you’re in any space, the higher you ascend, the more likely you are to come across the same people multiple times. Even if you don’t come in direct contact again with someone you worked with in some capacity prior, amongst my peers and older, eight times out of ten, anyone about to work with you — project, consulting, full on hire — is gonna call someone they think you might have in common and ask, “What do you know about ___?” Now, I think people might give more weight to socials than the direct investigation, but
don’t ever be so confident to think slipshod or shady moves will never come back to you.
On the flip side of this — y’all do a thorough investigation of people before you give them business or let them into yours. Sometimes the jig was just three google searches and an email or text message away, but you got got by a curated timeline and a promise.
4. Relationships are cultivated.
This is not “add water and stir.” Yes, sometimes you make an instant connection with someone and the energy is just right off the top, and you know you like this person and you want to do something with them, help them, stay in contact with them, etc. I’ve had that happen, too. But what usually comes next is, “Let’s get together!” so y’all can vibe, right? That’s cultivating your relationship. Someone else on last week’s panel shared a great gem about this; he keeps post it notes of people he wants to stay in contact with over his desk. He calls or reaches out every so often, not because he wants something, but because you never know where a connection might lead. He got the referral for his current job through that practice. Is there someone right now who can say they’ve known you in both your business and personal life for the majority of your career, who would sing your genuine praises on camera?
5. Relationships are an active practice.
A relationship doesn’t mean you just reach out when you need something.
We’re extremely aware of what it looks like/feels like when a potential romantic partner only hits us late night, last minute. Or when a friend only calls to ask you to help them do something. But we miss the same behavioral cues when the relationship is professional. Whether mentor, peer or colleague, reach out even when you don’t need something. Congratulate them on a win, wish them happy birthday, invite them to something you’re hosting/doing/having, share something you’re working on just for them to see it — not repost.
6. You don’t have to front.
Mr. Avant was cussing people out left and right, with love and authority. Although this word is used too often now, he was an is unapologetic. His level of directness is a privilege that comes with time and track record, but I think there’s a huge lesson in that he is universally trusted to shoot straight. Do you know how rare that is in life, let alone in business, let alone in entertainment?
The old adage that it’s not what, but who you know is true, but you also want those “who’s” to be excited to take your calls, willing to share your name in rooms, and feel reciprocity in your partnership. Nurture and value your relationships, it’ll take you far. I promise.
Now, in Clarence’s honor, think about who you owe an email or a phone call. Think about an opportunity you could suggest someone you know for. And think about someone who’s looked out whom you owe a simple shout to see how they’re doing. I’m going to do the same.