‘Leaders in an interconnected organization must be comfortable sitting in the middle of a network, not at the top of an org-chart.’ – Chris Fussell
Strong leaders vs good managers
Have you ever wondered about why networking for leaders is so important? Or even which networks are important to you, as a leader? Perhaps networking seems to be an indulgence: like chatting when you could be achieving more important things. But effective networking marks the difference between strong leaders and merely good managers. It is also important to remember that networking IS work. You can make great professional, personal, organisational and social progress by leading with good networking. In building and leveraging your social capital you can achieve far more than by managing alone. But before we look at the reasons why networks matter – first, what do we mean by ‘your networks’?
3 Types of networking for leaders
In Harvard Business Review’s ‘How Leaders Create and Use Networks,’ Ibarra and Hunter recommend that to be a successful leader, you need to build three different types of networks: Operational, Personal and Strategic:
1. Operational network
Your operational network involves people useful to you for fulfilling your current work tasks and responsibilities. These are your daily contacts for routine activities. Some managers and leaders do not reach beyond this network to become more successful leaders – keeping themselves trapped in technical and operational roles without achieving their full potential. Remember we know that networks and networking are key in both career and leadership transitions.
2. Personal network
These are likeminded people outside your own organisation who can assist your personal development and boost your advancement. You might know them through a mutual interest or pastime – but you can still leverage your acquaintance for business success. Ibarra and Hunter say: “these contacts provide important referrals, information, and, often, developmental support such as coaching and mentoring”.
3. Strategic network
These are external people who will draw your attention to new business possibilities, new directions and new stakeholders necessary to achieve the key objectives of your organisation. According to Ibarra & Hunter, “The key to a good strategic network is leverage: the ability to marshal information, support, and resources from one sector of a network to achieve results in another.”
Although active networking in all three areas is important, the most important for a leader is strategic networking. Remember that it is part of a leader’s job to network or build social capital as part of marshalling resources and achieving organisational goals.
7 Leadership Benefits
As a leader, networks matter. They help you to:
1. Identify trends and spot opportunities
Meeting with other people raises your awareness of current relevant issues and news, or new approaches, policies and practices. This enables you to see the opportunities and threats in the environment in which you work – whether in the same or a different industry, and whether issue-based or in the local/national/global arena. With this relevant knowledge, you can set or adjust your strategic direction and inspire others in your team to see beyond current practice.
2. Build links with diverse stakeholders
Look to build your internal AND external networks. Meet people in the same (or similar, or complementary, or even different) roles, business, or geographical areas. Successful teams collaborate not only with one another, but with others. Networking enables you to recruit new stakeholders and to line up allies, champions, advocates, referrers, sympathisers, promoters, and partners. Awareness and knowledge of the political landscape, and how to leverage influencers and networks are all part of the leader’s job.
3. Tap into a diverse pool of talent
Widening your network gives you access to a wider range of expertise and diverse skill sets that can be brought into play in your work and your life. Being exposed to different ideas, opinions and knowledge helps you to develop more complete, creative, and unbiased views of issues. In How to Build Your Network, Uzzi and Dunlap state that: ‘In a monumental 1998 study of innovations in science, art, and philosophy, sociologist Randall Collins of the University of Pennsylvania showed that breakthroughs from icons such as the seven sages of antiquity, Freud, Picasso, Watson and Crick, and Pythagoras, were the consequence of a particular type of personal network that prompted exceptional individual creativity.’
4. Avoid ‘groupthink’
Networks matter also for avoiding groupthink. Whilst it’s great to have an organisation in which members have shared values, a common purpose and agreed practices and procedures – individuals, especially in an established group, often seek to conform with the group. By striving for consensus and agreement, and fearing dissent and challenge, this ‘groupthink’ behaviour can produce unhealthy, unreasoned and unhelpful decision-making. To prevent groupthink, express and welcome new ideas or people, and invite critical challenge and different views. This can be achieved by introducing new members or practices, or by voicing and hearing opinions and ideas from wider networks.
5. Generate innovative ideas
Seek the cross-fertilisation of ideas, and share and generate new ideas and approaches. Talking and connecting with people in different fields or worlds enables you to access radically different perspectives. Discussing issues and approaches, problems and solutions, and sharing best practice and news is energising and motivating. It enables you to tap into greater creativity, and to develop new ideas and innovations. You may also collaborate with network members to produce new solutions, services, or products.
6. Mix experience and freshness
Combine people new to the field with experienced network members, providing fresh blood to give new life to the discussions, area, group or organisation. If you remain surrounded by people like yourself, or those you’re familiar with, you create an echo chamber in which groupthink and the same old behaviours and actions prevail. So, mix different people with different views, to learn from one another and to stimulate new thinking.
7. Get things done
Leveraging your network creates useful contacts and productive relationships to enhance your work, and along with the stimulation of discussion, provides the creativity, motivation, knowledge and skillset to get things done. Rather than networking ‘wasting’ your valuable time (as some managers and leaders mistakenly think), it is time well spent, and by increasing your productivity and effectiveness, it can even effectively create more time for you.
Whether you are seeking to lead or already leading, networks matter. We know that networking is essential in career and leadership transitions and is a core competency for leaders. Networking is also a skill that can be learned and refined.
So, when was the last time you assessed your networks? What did you find? Is it time to put some energy into building and leveraging your networks, and/or your networking skills?
In summary: Networking for leaders matters!
Networks matter in both career and leadership transitions. Networks provide distinct benefits: access to unique information that is unavailable in the public domain; access to diverse skillsets; more comprehensive, unbiased and creative views, opinions and ideas – and ultimately, more power to you as a leader.
If you need some help to develop your networking skills or leverage your network, or you feel that you would benefit from coaching, please get in touch.
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