Who you associate with is crucial to what you become. Those who ascend to positions of power and influence build and maintain reliable and robust networks which they count on for timely advice, insights and support as needed. They understand that no one has all the answers, can be completely objective or could ever know the right questions to ask. So they create personal and professional networks to access varying perspectives and helpful counsel from those they believe can add value to their lives when faced with tough choices. Strategically constructed and properly nourished, a network is an investment that keeps on giving.
A network is a thoughtfully curated group of individuals who are committed to providing value to one another. They are people who you admire and respect and with whom you share similar beliefs and core principles. They typically come together through conversations with those who genuinely interest you, who arouse your curiosity about causes or challenges you hold in common. They’re powered by your ability to engage the members with information they don’t possess and that’s also aimed at mutual benefit.
Networks are initiated by well-designed questions that inspire continuing dialogues. What are those questions? That depends on your objectives in building one. Examples of early conversation starters may include: If you had to start over, knowing what you now know, what might you do differently? What’s the most important decision you ever made? What significant events shaped your success? How do you come up with great ideas when needed? What intrigues you? How do you keep yourself motivated? If you had two wishes which would be granted, what might they be?
Healthy networks offer numerous benefits. Finding new business opportunities or the right job might be among them. In a classic study, Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter found almost 60% of people got their jobs through a personal network and fewer than 20% found theirs through more traditional methods such as the Internet or recruiters. Of those who applied directly on their own, without “connections,” only 10% were successful. Who you know opens a lot of doors.
In building the network you want, design it before you will need it. And be ruthlessly selective. What types of people do you wish to spend time with and be acquainted with? The membership of your network should reflect both what you may need and to which you can likewise make a meaningful contribution. I believe that everything worthwhile has an optimal number that sustains its viability. When it comes to networks, my advice is that number is four.
If a business network is your goal, think like a CEO. Are you in need of strategic or operational counsel? Are your principal issues the challenges of leading or of managing? Do you require insights on unraveling perplexing political dilemmas or assuaging more personal concerns? Are you in need of reliable alliances and contacts or just a sounding board with appropriate expertise or experience in solving problems similar to the ones you face? Are you looking for support or opportunity or challenge?
Choose members of your network who genuinely want to share, who are demonstrably committed to make the group function as it should (e.g., who don’t miss meetings without due cause), who understand the need for confidentiality, who make efficient use of your time together, who are good listeners, who provide insightful, diverse and candid feedback, who are competent, dependable and willing to add value to every discussion. Above all, choose those whom you genuinely want as colleagues. When you offer value, you want value in return.
If you already have a network, audit it occasionally to assess its effectiveness. Objectively identify its strengths and weaknesses. Does it operate under accepted rules of engagement that make mutual expectations explicit? Do the members bring something to the table that’s unique and desired? How much time do you spend (or want to spend) nurturing it? Is it characterized by diversity or similarity of views? Is it future oriented or focused primarily on the present? Do you have a strategy for how best to utilize it going forward? If so, what changes might you want to make? Based on the answers you get, refurbish and revitalize it from time to time – nothing of great value lasts forever without evaluation, iteration and adaptation.
Networks that keep on giving are fuelled by generosity. Thinking the objective is to satisfy your needs at the expense of theirs is a recipe for failure. If your contributions are not future oriented, then at least be current – deliver something meaningful. Above all else, keep them active … find ways to stay in touch with one another. Networks can have a powerful impact on the quality of the choices you must make in dealing with personal and professional challenges. I know this because I’m grateful to be a member of a couple.