The Truth About Building an Effective Network
The best networks are the biggest ones, right? Wrong. Although popular belief and common self-help books tend to equate effectiveness with size, the truth is that the sheer number of people in your network is not nearly as important as you think. In their article “How Top Talent Uses Networks and Where Rising Stars Get Trapped,” researchers Cross and Thomas (2008) introduce three other factors that are much more influential in crafting an effective network: authenticity, centrality, and a complementary nature.
First and foremost, an effective network has to be genuine; people can sniff out insincerity from a mile away. If someone thinks you are being inauthentic, they will immediately consider your attempt at building a relationship to be self-serving.
Let’s use an example. Mary, a product developer, has two contacts in the marketing department of her firm: Sally and Richard. She needs one of them to vouch for her product in an upcoming meeting with her boss. Mary only converses with Sally when they pass each other in the office and they only know each other on a superficial level. Richard and Mary, on the other hand, have had a number of one-on-one conversations that have helped them to develop a strong bond over time. Richard often comes to her with work-related problems, and Mary serves as a sounding board and provides him with helpful advice. Who do you think is more likely to vouch for Mary in her time of need?
Obviously the answer is Richard, but not simply because they spent more time together. Richard is more likely to provide support because Mary invested time and effort into developing a high quality relationship.
High quality relationships require the type of upfront investment described above. However, the returns on that investment are much larger than those of a series of surface-level ties. Taking the time to develop authentic, personal bonds will enable you to create a network of colleagues who will gladly help you out when you’re in need.
In addition to building authentic relationships, it is essential that you are building relationships with the right people. While it is easy to form high quality relationships with the people in your department who you see every day, the most effective network places you at a strategic point in an organization that bridges disconnected groups.
By being at the center of a diverse network you have access to many different experiences and opinions. Moreover, you can serve as a hub between groups, making you a desired target in other employees’ networks as well.
One way to think about it is to try to minimize the degrees of connection to anyone else in the organization. If you want to reach a specific employee in a different department overseas, how many people do you have to go through to find someone who knows that individual personally? If your answer is not very many, you are on the right track.
An insular network where an employee’s contacts are all highly interconnected limits the ability to capitalize on opportunities that require diverse insights and resources. Although it can be easy to fall into the trap of creating a network of like-minded co-workers, make sure to diversify! Failing to do so will only reduce the likelihood of generating innovative solutions.
Finally, an effective network extends your individual expertise. Networks are an important aspect of an employee’s continual development. As a result, surrounding yourself with people of complementary skill is a vital building block for personal development.
Let’s think back to the example of Richard and Mary. Mary is part of the product development team, but she needs to convince her boss that her product will be marketable. By investing in a relationship with Richard from the marketing team, she can call on him to ask how to enhance the marketability of her product. Friends from the product development team could have given her advice as well, but they would not have had the necessary expertise to provide the support she needed.
Employees ought to surround themselves not with clones, but with complements (i.e. people who extend their expertise). To do so, employees should be sure that their networks contain people of varying demographics, as well as people from different departments and levels of the organization.
So, next time you see a book touting “100 Ways to Increase the Size of Your Network” don’t be fooled. It isn’t the size of your network that determines your network’s effectiveness, but rather its centrality, authenticity, and complementary nature.
Cross, R., & Thomas, R. J. (2008). How top talent uses networks and where rising stars get trapped. Organizational Dynamics, 37(2), 165-180.