Groups with a high barrier to entry and high trust are often the most valuable groups to join.
Growing up a nerd I was never very popular. Just like Rudolf, the other kids never let me join in any reindeer games. Growing up as a social outcast I was very sensitive to issues of exclusion. As such I usually preferred joining groups that were open to everyone. I didn’t like the idea of excluding others (or maybe secretly worried about being excluded myself).
As an adult, I’ve changed my perspective. I’m part of many groups that have differing levels of member gating, from joining open-to-anyone online communities to very restricted groups that are not easy to get into. The groups that give me the most value are private, invite only groups. There’s a clear correlation to the most restrictive groups. How did I wind up joining them and what made me change my mind?
The groups that give me the most value are private, invite only groups.
This was not a conscious decision. My joining of these groups was organic, not an intentional decision to join private, invite-only communities. Each one I joined for the group itself, not yet understanding just how worthwhile they were. Over the years I realized how much value I was getting and thought a lot about why. There’s a clear pattern, and below I give examples of two such groups.
The first is Renaissance Weekend. The best way to describe it is like a TED conference (Renaissance Weekend has been described as the “grandaddy of idea fests” going back over 40 years). Unlike TED, Aspen Institute Events, Summit Series, and other more recent versions there are four key differences. First, it’s invite only. You can’t just buy a ticket and show up. You had to get nominated and then the organizers would decide whether to extend you an invitation. Second, everyone who attends speaks. You can’t passively listen; if you’re there it’s because you have some value to add. Third, it’s very informal. Whereas TED talks are extremely well choreographed, Renaissance Weekend talks are casual, often panels instead of single speakers, and the talks are seen as “conversation starters” to be continued in the hallways and over dinner, as opposed to the definitive word on the topic. And fourth, all conversations are completely off the record. You cannot repeat what was said without expressed permission from the speaker. A few thousand people attend one or more of the five annual events; importantly, many keep in touch with each other and form close personal and business relationships outside of the formal events.
The second group is the New York CTO club. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a group of CTOs based around New York City. We meet once a month to hear a speaker on a topic relevant to the group. We also have a very active mailing list. Like Renaissance Weekend, the group is invite only, with current members often nominating future members. Also, like Renaissance Weekend, we follow Chatham House Rules, which states that you can use what you’ve heard but can’t reveal the source. (There’s also a strict rule that the club can’t get bogged down in rules and governance; if it does, the club should just end.)
From these two clubs I and other members have gotten a number of benefits. We have formed friendships and trusted relationships. We’ve gotten insights in candid conversations. Many of us have sought advice in matters we might not want to discuss publicly.
What’s the common thread? The first element is that it’s invite only. There are many interesting, wonderful people who can and should be members. But if the doors were thrown wide open to all, some not so great people would join as well. It might be people who just don’t have a lot of value to add, lowering the signal to noise ratio. It could also be people who are not a “cultural fit.” That could mean many things from the hated vendor just there to push products to people with different boundaries or ethical norms. Gating membership is critical.
The second element is high trust. This requires restrictive membership. Once you know members have been vetted, it creates a degree of trust. This trust is then fostered by the community in terms of culture and interactions. There is trust that the people inside the community are valuable. More importantly, there is also trust that members will follow the rules, allowing for confidentiality, whether off the record or Chatham House Rules. If you couldn’t trust the other members to follow the rule, the rule is pointless. By having the rule, you can have more useful conversations. I’ve heard executives talk about issues they couldn’t say publicly. By having the trust, the leaders could either get help, or share learnings, or both.
You might not have or need formal confidentiality in your group. Having rules, or cultural norms, allowing you to behave in “risky” behavior is helpful. We’re using a narrow definition of “risky” to mean risk to the person raising the issue. In the cases above the “risk” is talking about a problem that if it got out could hurt the person. In other cases, the risk might be broaching a topic that could be difficult to talk about, but the norms of the group allow for it to be discussed safely, without being attacked. Creating that safety, de-risking it, allows for important interactions that can’t happen elsewhere.
Note that the trust is likely partially dependent on size. In the NY CTO club, about 150 people, we mostly all know each other. Coincidentally, that’s Dunbar’s number. We don’t all know each other well, but we basically recognize who the other people are. Renaissance Weekend is much bigger at a few thousand people. But you’re pretty much one or two connections to anyone else in the group and since you know the other people were vetted to a high standard there’s some implied trust.
Doing this with a group of fifty thousand people would be harder. That’s about the size of a college alumni community. It’s not an open group, you need to have gone to the school to be able to join. That alone generates some trust, e.g., you’re likely to at least look at and probably respond to an email with a subject, “Hello from a fellow <college> alum”. However, you’re not going to have the same depth of automatic trust and you certainly won’t be closely connected to everyone.
A more extreme example are large online communities, all the way to the biggest social media platforms which are open to all. No gating; no real trust.
Open groups are good in their own right. Local community groups, clubs, social groups, and other societies are fun, and you can get a lot of value from them. But pound for pound, high trust communities offer more value. To create the high trust, it requires some basic rules, often formal but in some cases informal, defining what the trust is, and gating access to ensure all members will abide by those rules and bring value to the group. Join both types of groups, but pay attention to the more restricted ones, often there is higher value per unit of engagement.
It’s critical to learn about corporate culture before you accept a job offer but it can be awkward to raise such questions. Learn what to ask and how to ask it to avoid landing yourself in a bad situation.