Nutshell: The world at our feet: the power of strategic networks

Written by
Future Talent Learning

Published
07 Dec 2020

07 Dec 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

The right networks can make better leaders of us all. But we need to know how to build and maintain connections that support us in forward-facing, strategic ways. 

Whether or not Christopher Columbus really was the first European to set foot in the Americas is open to interpretation. But he is widely recognised as the navigator and explorer who, in the late 15th-century, opened up the New World for a continent hungry to exploit a lucrative new trade route. It could, however, have been very different had Columbus not taken advantage of what we might think of as a more modern phenomenon: a strategic network.

When, after many years of voyaging, Columbus hatched his plan to cross the Atlantic, it wasn’t all plain sailing. The powers-that-be of his adopted home in Portugal were less than enamoured of an idea that failed to convince the navigational experts of the time. Appeals to the Spanish, French and English courts also came to nought. Frustrated, Columbus retreated to the Franciscan monastery of La Rábida to regroup. It was during his two-year stay there that he made a strategic connection that proved to be transformational. It turned out that the monastery’s abbot, Juan Perez, was a former confessor of Queen Isabella of Spain, and he wrote to her on Columbus’s behalf. As it happened, the timing was fortuitous; with Spain’s war chest almost empty, the time was right for the Spanish crown to take a punt on an adventurer promising the riches of the Indies. Columbus set sail, the Americas were claimed for Spain – and we’re left with a fascinating example of the power of social networks and connection.

Networking is one of those business activities that’s almost guaranteed to divide the room. Some people derive huge energy from reaching out to and meeting new people, basking in a large and extended network. For others, the very idea of working a room or initiating a conversation with a stranger is enough to make them retreat to a strategy that author and podcast host Morra Aarons-Mele calls hiding in the bathroom. Even in more finessed terms, we may know that developing a network of contacts is essential for our personal and professional development – but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, that we don’t feel awkward about trying or that we see it as a valuable use of our precious time. In the words of London Business School’s Herminia Ibarra, “Networking is a lot like nutrition and fitness: we know what to do, the hard part is making it a top priority.”

The problem is that staying in our lane and focusing exclusively on the here and now can have serious consequences. Ibarra has coined the term competency trap to describe our tendency to get stuck in a rut rather than to develop what she calls outsight, to lift our heads, broaden our horizons and build the connections and relationships that – like Columbus – we need to progress and thrive.

Whatever side we sit on when it comes to the more traditional networking divide, that means reframing how we think about networking in the first place, overcoming any reluctance – even distaste – about getting involved and learning to network in ways that will repay the investment in time in spades.

A new networking mindset

Writing in Harvard Business Review, Ibarra, together with Mark Hunter, define networking as “creating a fabric of personal contacts who will provide support, feedback, insight, resources and information”. They also remind us that it’s one of the most “self-evident, yet dreaded” challenges that leaders face, especially when we’re stepping up for the first time. But, as we move away from job roles based more on our technical know-how and need to operate more strategically, being able to exchange and interact with a diverse range of contacts will help us to stay ahead of the game.

Like so many other things in leadership, networking is about learning and progress. The right networks keep us informed, help us to come up with and test new ideas and teach us new things. They help us to develop our influence and have more impact. Being tuned into a diverse range of opinions will not just support us, but also offer the challenge we need to question and sharpen our thinking, confront our biases and make better decisions. None of us can possibly have all the answers or even know what questions to ask; our networks can help to plug those gaps.

In her book Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader Ibarra identifies six key ways that leaders can use their networks as an essential leadership tool:

  • sensing trends and seeing opportunities
  • building ties to opinion leaders and talent in diverse areas
  • working collaboratively across boundaries to create more value
  • avoiding groupthink
  • generating breakthrough ideas
  • obtaining career opportunities

Much depends, of course, on the quality of our networks and how we go about building and maintaining them. If we see networking in purely transactional terms, measured in quantity of contacts rather than quality, focused solely around large-scale set pieces such as conferences and events or just about cosying up to the high-ups, then these benefits are likely to be diluted or cease to exist. Instead, we need to reframe how we think about and approach it: networking is about nothing more or less than forging positive, effective relationships.

Organisational psychologist Adam Grant agrees that a more traditional idea of networking can make us feel awkward or even calculating. Thinking about networking in these terms “violates” the very idea we have about relationships: what we really want is to create meaningful connections with people.

Grant identifies three styles of personal interaction that might underpin our approach to networking:

Taking: what can you do for me? This, unsurprisingly, can leave people feeling taken advantage of.

Giving: what can I do for you?

Matching: a bit of both: give and take. This might seem like a healthy approach, but it brings with it the risk that we only interact with people who have immediate value for us. It might end up narrowing our networks rather than developing them.

Grant firmly advocates the “giver” approach, taking the view that we should help as many people as we can when the benefit to them outweighs the cost to us. That way, we create a more meaningful set of connections that are likely to serve us beyond our immediate needs or interests.

It’s an approach that aligns with research by Francesca Gino, Maryam Kouchaki and Tiziana Casciaro, who have identified four strategies to help us change our mindset around networking, even learn to love it. Alongside identifying common interests, thinking broadly about what we can – Adam Grant-like – give others and considering the purpose of what we want to achieve, the authors encourage us to focus on learning.

Gino and her colleagues divide us into people who have a promotion mindset and those of us who have a prevention approach. It’s akin to Carol Dweck’s thinking around growth and fixed mindsets. Promotion-focused people approach networking with enthusiasm, curiosity and an open mind about the possibilities it might bring. Prevention-focused people see networking as – at best – a necessary evil, or something inauthentic to be avoided as far as possible.

Fortunately, we can adjust our mindset and reframe how we think about networking. For example, if we’re facing the dreaded office party or a large industry event, we can either roll our eyes and expect to hate it or we can give it the benefit of the doubt, keeping an open mind about who we might meet and the conversations we might have. If we focus on the positives, we can begin to see the opportunities that making those connections might bring.

For Ibarra, it’s not really a choice. Being a leader actively requires us to “cultivate a diverse, widespread, dynamic and cross-cutting set of relationships”. We need them to take us beyond cosy comfort zones that can narrow our thinking and limit our capacity to lead. If we don’t or can’t get on board, we leave ourselves vulnerable to change and uncertainty and reduce our own usefulness and value to others.

Beware network traps

The problem is that, if we persist with a narrower view of networking, what it’s about and how it can help us, we’re much less likely to invest the time it takes to build and maintain those far-reaching and diverse connections.

Ibarra uses the term network traps to describe mindsets that create powerful “network blinders”. We may think networking is not really work and eschew it. We might think it’s about using people or being inauthentic, out of step with our values. We might think that relationships should form spontaneously rather than being contrived. Or we might think we have more urgent things to do right now than to take a punt on a connection that might not pay dividends immediately, if ever.

These traps tend to reinforce our tendency to fall prey to what she calls the narcissistic principle, the idea that we are most drawn to people just like us, and her lazy principle, the idea that we often avoid the effort it takes to connect with people beyond our immediate circle or tribe. Just think of the average workplace and how few of us really interact with others beyond our own teams or perhaps located on a different floor, let alone another building or country. We have to make the effort to range more widely and to connect with people outside our natural tribes.

Research by Rob Cross and Robert Thomas has similarly identified three kinds of network traps and the six types of people who tend to get stuck in them.

The wrong structure

Formalists rely too heavily on formal hierarchy and tend to ignore the value of more informal connections at work. Sometimes, Dave in Accounts can be a much more useful contact than the shiny new sales director.

Overloaded managers have so much contact with colleagues and the external world that they become a bottleneck to progress and are in danger of burnout. We need to be selective about the connections we make and prioritise how we make them.

The wrong relationships

Disconnected experts stick to what they know rather than risk being challenged by others to build new skills. Staying exclusively in our lanes is not really a viable option.

Biased leaders fall foul of the narcissistic principle, relying too much on others who are just like them and are unlikely to counter their biases or offer fresh perspectives.

The wrong behaviours

Superficial networkers focus on quantity rather than quality, counting the number of LinkedIn connections they have rather than forging fewer, more meaningful relationships.

Chameleons change their values and interests depending on which subgroup they’re operating in at any given time and therefore end up failing to connect fully with anyone in a meaningful way.

Being aware of these traps is the first stage towards moving beyond them. It can also help to understand the different types of networks we need to succeed and what we have to do build them.

Towards strategic networks

We all already have networks. It’s just that we might not be fully aware of them and whether they’re the type of network that can help us not just to do our current jobs, but also to answer the more strategic question “Where and what next?”.

Ibarra distinguishes between three different types of network: operational, personal and strategic.

Operational networks include the people we rely on to get our work done. They might include team members, our bosses, people in other teams and key suppliers, customers and distributors. Their make-up is largely determined by the job we’re doing at the moment. They help our efficiency and reliability, but do not take us beyond today’s functional tasks.

Personal networks are made up of the people we feel closest to, our “kindred spirits”, and include family, friends and trusted advisers. They can be important sources of information and referrals, and often offer developmental support, like coaching or mentoring. But we often see them as disconnected from our day-to-day working life and overlook the potential for synergies with our operational contacts which might be mutually reinforcing.

Strategic networks are made up of relationships that help us “envision the future”. They have to include people who can help us to compete in the future. A good strategic network will give us what Ibarra calls “connective advantage”, the ability to marshal information and support in one sphere to influence another; it’s not just about one-to-one relationships, but how those relationships intersect.  

For leaders, it’s those strategic networks that offer us the biggest chance to learn and grow. Ibarra believes that the advantage our strategic network affords us depends on three key characteristics, her BCD of network advantage:

Breadth: strong relationships with a diverse range of contacts

Connectivity: the capacity to link or bridge groups of people who wouldn’t meet otherwise

Dynamism: a network that evolves as we do, and our aspirations change.

Breadth

Breadth matters. Adam Grant suggests that the more connections we have with people from different worlds, the more we can help others – and the more we can create meaningful connections that build into an active, mutually-reinforcing network.

We also need to balance the relationships we have inside our organisations with those we build in the external world. Building external links with people who can help us make sense of a fast-moving world is crucial and will help us to develop Ibarra’s outsight. But we also need to establish strong relationships within our organisations so that we can apply what we learn effectively and are not blind-sided by office politics.

We also need to guard against being a Cross and Thomas formalist. Strong connections with a range of people throughout our organisations, even those more junior than us, can provide invaluable insight into what’s really going on beyond the senior leadership team, much-needed 360° perspective and ideas from as broad a group as possible. The key influencing principle of reciprocity is also important for our strategic networks.

Connectivity

When our networks comprise mostly people who not only know us but also know each other, we have what Ibarra calls a network density problem. When this happens, our networks become “inbred”, echo chambers in which no new information circulates because everyone knows the same things or has access to the same sources. This can lead to groupthink and unhealthy consensus.

This also limits our value to others because we’re not able to offer anything unique or new. Our networking comparative advantage relies on how well we’re able to connect people, ideas and resources who are not already in the know. Again, it’s about balance. Networks that are too dense run the risk of becoming inbred; not dense enough and we might spread ourselves too thinly, becoming a Cross and Thomas chameleon - in Ibarra’s words “a ‘visitor’ to many networks but a ‘citizen’ of none”.

In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell introduces the ideas of connectors, people who “by having a foot in so many different worlds…have the effect of bringing them all together.” When we have a properly strategic and balanced network, we can put people in touch with others, match solutions to problems and also benefit from other connectors who can do the same for us.

Dynamism

If we fall into the trap of narcissism or laziness, our networks will inevitably stultify. We might be forging ahead into the future, learning new skills, taking on more responsibility and developing personally, but our networks will lag behind, failing to keep up with the person we’ve become and offering much less value just at the time when we might need them most. We effectively fail to future-proof our connections and relationships.

One way to avoid this, according to Ibarra, is to focus not just on maintaining high-quality strong ties characterised by people we know well and trust. We also need to build and value weak ties with people who may not yet be part of our inner circles and are likely to be on the periphery of our current networks or even entirely outside our current world.

This might make them harder to identify and connect with, but they’re essential for a more future-facing network that will give us fresh perspective and outsight. And that may be especially important when we want to move on or stretch and re-invent ourselves and might be pigeonholed or hamstrung by the people we know well now.

With these BCD elements in mind, we can remind ourselves that we need to put the effort into broadening and refreshing our networks to make sure we steer clear of those traps and blinders.

How to build a strategic network

Analyse

If we want to work on those strategic networks, we need to know more about the networks we have right now.

We need to map the connections we already have: who are they? Where do they sit? What do they bring to us, and we bring to them? Who do they know? Do they energise us, or are they energy-sappers?

Are our current networks mostly operational or personal? How well are we reaching out to those weaker ties?

Once we’ve done that mapping, then we can identify the gaps and work on filling them. Cross and Thomas also suggest that some “de-layering” might be appropriate at this stage, moving (carefully) away from relationships that might be less than helpful or of limited ongoing value.

Ibarra also has a characteristically colourful way to help us identify and address some potential network weaknesses:

Birds of a feather: too many connections with people who are just like us.

Network lag: a network fit for our past, rather than our future.

Echo chamber: contacts who all know each other.

Pigeonholing: contacts who might find it hard to see us being or doing something different.

Show up

Woody Allen famously said that “80% of success is showing up”. Developing a more strategic network takes effort and time, and we have to reconcile ourselves to that, to give ourselves permission to see it as time well spent.

We also need to plan. That could be researching other attendees at an event in advance and identifying the people with whom you’d like to have a conversation. It might be a case of making a list of three-five senior people in your organisation you’d like to know better and finding ways to develop those relationships in the coming months. Cross and Thomas suggest writing down three key objectives you’d like to achieve in the year ahead and then think of the people who might help us to achieve them. Setting some goals around the people we want to connect with – and following through – can help make building a network a more natural part of our jobs.

Building our profile will also help us to network more actively. Could we speak or play some other role at a key industry event? How might we use the next project or assignment to make ourselves known to new people? Can we create our own community of interest or practice? What can we share or give that will add value to others?

Adam Grant has a simple rule for making meaningful connections; don’t talk too much about ourselves. We may think that, to open doors, we need to give the other person chapter on verse on why we’re worth talking to. But we need to remember that people don’t want to be impressed; they’re looking for connection. So, start with them. Ask them something about themselves; share something interesting or new; open up a conversation about something they’ve done that you admire or interests you; look for “uncommon commonalities”, things we might have in common beyond attending the same university. At all times, remember to be a “giver”. The more we can find diverse and interesting ways to connect with people, the more meaningful those connections are likely to be.

Ibarra believes that one of the most effective ways of convincing ourselves that networking is a proper use of our precious time is simply to try it. Set some goals and experiment, balancing contact with people inside and outside our organisations or immediate circles. It can also help to have a role model, someone we admire for their ability to build and maintain a wide range of connections. We can learn by observing these people and how they operate, and benefit from feedback from them about how we’re doing.

Friends of friends

Author David Burkus encourages us to redefine networking not as meeting strangers at parties and events, but as “knowing who's a friend and who's a friend of a friend”. For Burkus, the best way to extend our reach beyond our immediate circle is to go through our immediate circle.

The great thing about being a connector is that it helps our networking efforts in two ways.

We can add value by connecting others and helping them to build their own connections. And using the six (or fewer) degrees of separation principle, we can link to just about anyone through the people we already know.

We should be a generous giver anyway but, when we want to receive, reciprocity really matters. It’s much easier to ask for referrals and introductions is we make them for others too. We can both ask for and offer simple favours to start and build relationships. The whole point of the connectivity piece of the BCDs of networking is to provide a bridge between people who don’t already know each other and to benefit from other people’s bridging too.

Maintain

Networks can’t just be built and then ignored. Nor can we expect to reach out or rely on others only when we need them urgently. Networks need to be maintained. We must take every opportunity we can to give and receive, whether we need help or not. If they are not to wither away, networks need to be active, living things.

Even the smallest things can make a difference: send a thank you note or e-mail (physical mail can make a refreshing change); share links to articles we think others will enjoy; use social media to show our appreciation. Mark McCormack, founder of sport management giant, IMG, and author of What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School was notorious for his attention to detail and follow up when it came to the people he knew, using his famous index cards to keep track of other people’s interests and relationships. He championed the power of communications that build personal as well as business connections, whether that’s keeping up with others’ family lives or a well-honed Christmas card list.

David Burkus reminds us that some of the “lowest-hanging fruit” in networking comes from re-activating dormant ties, reaching out to re-connect with old friends and colleagues. We can make a list of four or five people you haven't talked to in a while, and get in touch. The chances are that most people will be pleased to hear from us and they’ll also have extended their own network again too.

As with building a network, it can help to give ourselves some goals (such as getting in touch each week with two-three people we might not have communicated with in a while) to help us integrate network maintenance into our working lives.

Building a network can be hard, fraught with traps, demanding of our time and, as with so many leadership activities, based on intuition and judgement. The good news, though, is that it requires no innate talent or even a more naturally gregarious, extraverted personality: it’s a skill that can be learnt. It takes practice and perseverance, but the rewards are clear, whether that’s securing the funding for an uncharted trip to the Indies or a leadership career that benefits from the support, challenge and sense of connectedness that a good strategic network can bring.

An African proverb tells us: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.” Taking the time to build and nurture the right connections will help us on that journey.

 

Test your understanding

  • Identify three ways that strategic networks can support leaders.
  • Explain why Adam Grant believes it’s best to be a “giver” when it comes to building connections.
  • Describe Herminia Ibarra’s BCD of strategic networks.

What does it mean for you?

  • Reflect on what you currently do to build and maintain your own networks. Plan for three new activities you might try to extend and nurture the connections you have.