Qualities of Effective Networks

Qualities of Effective Networks

by Felicity Menzies
Most of us understand intuitively that, to emerge as a leader, who you know matters as much or more than what you know. Nothing much is achieved as a lone soldier. Relationships are critical to our ability to accomplish our goals.
Through our connections with others, we attain the support, resources, and feedback that we need for performance and for growth. Studies confirm this. Individuals with quality networks are more likely to find a job, be promoted, earn a higher salary and achieve high levels of performance in their current role.

Common Perceptions of Networking

However, despite widespread agreement on the importance of networking for professional success, many people shy away from networking leaving a notable gap between the perceived value of networking and the quality of their networks. There are some common reasons why emerging leaders don’t apply enough effort to build effective networks:
  •     Networking is perceived to be time consuming and exhausting. If busy managers don’t fully appreciate the value of networking, they may feel that the opportunity cost of spending time on relationships relative to operational demands is unjustified.
  •     Studies show that networking makes people feel ‘dirty’. Networking, because it is ultimately undertaken to progress one’s career and professional success, may be perceived as sleazy and self-serving. This deters many aspiring leaders from actively building their networks.
  •     Networking is typically perceived to be reserved for extroverts—outgoing individuals who are energised by social interactions. Introverts, who lose energy from being around people for long periods of time, may shy away from events with large crowds or strangers
  •     Networking can be intimidating and awkward, particularly for people who are naturally shy or reserved. Connecting with strangers exposes you to the possibility of rejection. conflict or misunderstanding. Many emerging leaders shy away from networking so as to avoid the uncomfortable feelings that can occur when engaging with strangers
  •     Compared with the formation of close personal friendships, networking may be perceived as shallow and inauthentic—forming relationships with people we otherwise probably wouldn’t connect with
These negative perceptions of networking, however, reflect a lack of appreciation of the purpose of networking and how it is carried out. Networking is not about attending group networking events en masse, working a room full of strangers, and making numerous superficial connections with people who can boost your career success. Rather, networking involves the deliberate creation of a web of mutually beneficial personal relationships. A network is a collection of close, enduring relationships with individuals whom you depend on and who depend on you for job performance and career progression.

Three Functions of Effective Networks

Effective networks serve three functions (Hill & Lineback, 2012):
  1. First, networks provide valuable information not widely known, giving you a competitive edge by helping you to make better-informed decisions or plans.
  2. Second, networks connect you to others. Two (or more) heads are better than one for problem-solving because different people bring different ideas to a problem formed from their unique knowledge and experience. Thus, a group offers a larger pool of possible solutions from which to draw from when problem-solving compared with individuals. Connections with others can also support your success by linking you to people who have resources or influence that you need to accomplish your goals.
  3. Third, networks can amplify your influence by connecting you to individuals whose interests align with your own. As we’ve witnessed with #MeToo, the power of a coalition is greater than the sum of its parts.
Through these functions, networks can support current job performance, help you to foresee and manage market and industry changes, and can help you to transition and succeed in a leadership role by helping you to identify business opportunities and to attain the resources and political firepower needed to capitalise on them.
Many people don’t understand the value of networking. Partly because our education system is focused on individual efforts, we can enter the workforce believing that success will come to those who put their heads down and plug away, producing high-quality work. This is a misperception. Professional success, unlike academic success, does not come to those to work the hardest but to those who leverage their relationships most effectively.
Other individuals understand the value of networking but shy away from it because of concerns raised earlier—networking is perceived to be exhausting, awkward, intimidating, sleazy, shallow. However, the good news is that by employing the networking principles and strategies in this blog, it is possible for anyone to develop an effective professional network efficiently and with minimal anxiety. Networking is a skill that can be learned and practiced, even by introverts.

Qualities of Effective Networks

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, management academic, Herminia Ibarra identifies three characteristics of effective networks. According to her ABCD model, a network’s advantage is a function of its breath, connectivity, and dynamism.
  1. Breadth: Your network consists of strong relationships with a diverse range of contacts
  2. Connectivity: Your network links or bridges across people and groups that wouldn’t otherwise connect
  3. Dynamism: Your network has a dynamic set of extended ties that evolves as you evolve

Assessing the breadth of your network

Your professional network should consist of a collection of individuals who differ in what they bring to your network, areas of expertise, seniority, organisational membership, and background.
Ibarra and Hunter, suggest that effective professional networks consist of three related but different networks:
  1. The first layer is operational—people you need for performance in your current role. This includes peers, juniors, and superiors whose support you need for successful execution of your assigned tasks as well as key stakeholders outside the organisation such as customers or suppliers. Anyone who can block or promote your current work is an operational contact.
  2. The second layer is personal—individuals who support your professional development and well-being. This layer includes friends and family who offer emotional support; mentors and coaches to whom you turn for feedback, advice and professional development; and contacts who know socially or professionally who make referrals and introductions for you. Trusted peers, superiors, and subordinates might also act as personal contacts.
  3. The third layer is strategic—people who can help you to move successfully into the future. Typically, your strategic connections have power or influence. Your strategic network should also include individuals with access to information and insights about changing organisational, market or industry conditions.
Although you need all three types of networks, strategic networking is critical for emerging as a leader because it enables you to identify new business opportunities (a core leadership capability). Most managers, however, have well-developed operational networks but weak strategic networks.
Drawing from the work on networking by Cross & Thomas, a network with operational, personal and strategic layers has six types of people at its core:
  •     Individuals who provide new knowledge and ideas
  •     Individuals with power and influence
  •     Individuals who support your development with the provision of feedback and coaching
  •     Individuals who offer emotional support and encouragement
  •     Individuals who reinforce the meaning and worth of your work
  •     Individuals who encourage you to practice work-life balance
In addition, effective professional networks consist of individuals internal and external to the organisation, of different rank, and of different function or expertise. While internal connections support your success within your organisation, external connections provide valuable information on changing market and industry conditions and help you to capitalise on opportunities outside your organisation. External connections also bring a new perspective and fresh thinking to internal problems, enhancing problem-solving, decision making and innovation.
Similarly, contacts with different expertise can enhance performance by contributing different perspectives and ideas, knowledge and experience. A large volume of research supports diversity of thought as a driver of workgroup and organisational performance.
Also, while connections with a higher rank than you are important for securing a promotion or stretch assignment, your relationships with peers and subordinates can offer useful feedback on your performance. Your relationships with subordinates and peers can also be of value to senior network members who might not have the same access to the motivations, interests and concerns of junior staff and who value the insights you glean from your relationships at these levels.
Action: List up to ten contacts you have recently turned to for professional or personal support. Does your core network have operational, personal and strategic layers? Which layers are well-developed? Which layers are less-developed? Does your network meet the six needs listed above? What is being fulfilled by your contacts? What is not being met? Are your contacts mostly internal or mostly external? Do your contacts represent different functional areas or expertise? Does your network contain a mixture of peers, superiors, and subordinates? Who is not represented in your network?

Assessing the connectivity of your network

Connectivity refers to how effective your network is in linking you to people you don’t already know. Networks that are too inbred, whereby everyone knows everyone else, act as echo chambers. The same information circulates around the network and no new information gets in, seriously limiting the value of the network.
Inbred networks reflect a universal tendency for people to cluster in groups of people who are similar to themselves. Social psychologists call our preferences for the company of people like us affinity or self-similarity bias. Studies on affinity bias have shown that we exhibit more positive regard, empathy, and cooperation towards people who have backgrounds similar to our own. Relationships with people who are like ourselves are easier than with outgroup members. We cluster in groups with people like us to enjoy the affection and positive attention of fellow ingroup members. Their similarity and attraction to us reaffirm our identity and boost our self-esteem. Affinity bias results in a tendency to form networks where contacts are similar to us and each other. Many times, these like-minded contacts are already known to one another.
An effective network, on the other hand, seeks to extend your reach to people outside your friendship groups, and in particular to people who are dissimilar to you. As noted above, the value of your network is linked to the diversity of thought it embodies. The most valuable networks link you to a broad diversity of thought. To achieve that, Uzzi and Dunlop suggest you should seek to add brokers to your core. Brokers are individuals who don’t know each other and who can connect you to many other independent individuals or groups. Brokers amplify your network advantage because they connect you to a much larger group of individuals and therefore to more information, influence, and resources than an inbred network.
It’s important not to spread yourself so thin, however, that none of your network contacts overlap. Consider, for example, that one of your contacts is recruiting for a role you are interested in. That contact is more likely to consider you for the role when he or she knows someone else who also knows you and who speaks favorably of you. Your common relationships enhance your credibility and visibility.
Action: Make a note of who introduced you to your core network contacts. These are your brokers. Think about ways you can strengthen your relationships with the brokers in your network. Note: If you introduced yourself to your core contacts most of the time, your network might to too inbred. Ascertain whether you act as a broker for others by thinking about who you have connected in your network.

Assessing the dynamism of your network

Dynamism refers to whether your network is past or future-orientated. Connections that we made in the past may not be the right people to support our future growth. This is particularly true if we have changed or are seeking to change organisations, industries or locations. Old connections might not have the information, links or influence we need to support the accomplishment of our new job tasks or future goals. Old connections can also limit us by failing to support changes we are making in our personal and professional lives. Old connections can challenge our new paths subconsciously in defence of their own choices. More simply, old connections might not be able to see us doing anything different to what we’ve done in the past. In Ibarra’s study of thirty-nine mid-career man­agers and professionals considering major career changes, all of them were told by a friend, family member, or close coworker that they must be out of their minds for thinking about quitting their jobs or leaving their organisations. The objections of old connections may deter us from reinventing ourselves.
To prevent network lag,  Ibarra suggests you should regularly review your network’s dynamism by making a list of categories of people who can support your future success (such as industry leaders, key contacts, role models and mentors) and nurture relationships with individuals in those categories before you need to call in a favour.
Action: Make a list of key categories of people who can support your future success. Do you have people who represent those categories at your network core? Which categories are not represented?

Next Steps

Once you’ve reviewed the quality of your network and identified gaps, you are then ready to start revitalising your network by stepping away from the wrong relationships and deliberating making new connections that enhance your network’s advantage. In next week’s post, I offer some practical tips for building your network, including delayering without burning bridges, time-efficient activities that connect you to others, how to approach strangers at networking events, and developing an effective elevator pitch.

Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.