Last week, I was invited, along with a number of others, to a lunch meeting to help out a colleague who was looking for fresh ideas on where to take her career. The conversation was lively and engaging, and my colleague came away with a plethora of new ideas – in fact, way more than she’d even hoped for.
As the conversation unfolded, I was struck by the diversity of the people in the room. Around the table were people from very different walks of life, with quite different perspectives on what our mutual colleague’s future could look like. Conflicting views often emerged, which caused disruption, debate, and some discomfort amongst us. Some ideas were built upon, some robustly challenged, others left hanging. In the end, they all formed the tapestry of our mutual colleague’s future possibilities.
Reflecting afterwards, I couldn’t help but wonder whether she’d deliberately chosen such a diverse bunch. As it turned out, she’d done just that.
My colleague’s approach to how she chose the lunch participants is a great example of the benefits of having, and leveraging, a diverse network.
As leaders, we need to seek fresh perspectives and ways to innovate. The best innovations frequently come from a completely different field, and are evolved to be applied in our own context. To be effective, we need access to those different fields and ways of thinking. This applies whether you’re leading organisational change and growth, or shaping your own career.
How diverse is your network, and how well do you leverage it?
I frequently come across leaders whose networks have evolved by travelling the path of least resistance. The people they count in their network are the ones they’ve naturally come across in their day-to-day work, and / or are similar in mindset, experience and interests to their own. They’ve ‘collected’ people along the way without necessarily thinking about who will be the most useful people to associate with to get work done, design the future, or support them through tough times.
While collecting is fine, it’s not the most strategic approach, and can lead to a somewhat limited mindset that’s blind to new opportunities and possibilities. Researchers call this a ‘closed network’ (which, in fact, can have some benefits, particularly to help short term work get done efficiently).
Let me offer a different approach. One where you deliberately cultivate a network that works for you over the long term. It’s not size that matters. It’s the breadth, diversity and quality of relationships that does. 500+ contacts on LinkedIn does not necessarily make for an effective network, but, for you, and for the people in your organisation, ‘there’s gold in them thar hills’ if you care enough to put the effort in.
Experience tells me that the most effective leaders consciously act on the fact that networks matter. We all know (or at least we should know) that no one person has the answer to our most gnarly problems, and we need to invent answers through collaboration. And research tells us that high performers who are extremely satisfied in their work have these things in common when it comes to networks:
- To achieve high performance, their networks include people who offer them new information or expertise; influential people who provide mentoring and resources, and can help open doors; and people who offer developmental feedback and challenge.
- To ensure high satisfaction, their networks include people who provide personal support; people who add a sense of purpose or worth; and people who promote balance in their life.
- Their mottos are ‘build relationships before you need them’ and ‘give to get’. In other words, be proactive, and look for ways to help people, as well as asking for the help you need.
- The people in their networks are ‘energy givers’, not ‘energy takers’.
How does your own network stack up against these criteria? How about the networks of the people that report to you? By deliberately cultivating your own network, and encouraging the people around you to do the same, you catalyse collaborative, networked leadership – a phenomenon that’s increasingly important in our organisations and society today.
Take a moment to analyse your own network. Here’s an activity that will only take you 15 minutes (you can go here to download a template):
- Write down as many people as possible that you know who can help you achieve your work and career goals.
- Put a star next to the ones who energise you the most.
- Map the starred people to a matrix, using headings as described below. The headings are the types of roles people play in your network, based on the research (see points 1 and 2 above).
5. Answer these questions:
- How could you leverage the people in your network to help you achieve your goal?
- Who else do you need in your network to help you achieve your goal?
- How could you connect with them?
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