She works at a major technology company and runs a global business
unit that has more than 7,000 employees. When you ask her how she
rose to the top and why she enjoys her job, her answer is simple:
BY ROBERT CROSS & ROBERT THOMAS
She points to her boss, the CEO, a mentor who “always has
her back”; Steve, the head of a complementary business, with
whom she has monthly brainstorming lunches and occasional
gripe sessions; and Tom, a protégé to whom she has delegated
responsibility for a large portion of her division.
Outside the company, Deb’s circle includes her counterparts
in three strategic partnerships who inspire her with new
ideas; Sheila, a former colleague, now in a different industry,
who gives her candid feedback; and her husband, Bob, an
executive at a philanthropic organization. She also has close
relationships with her fellow volunteers in a program for
at-risk high school students and the members of her tennis
group and book club.
This is Deb’s social network (the real-world kind, not the virtual kind), and it has helped her career a lot. But not because
the group is large or full of high-powered contacts. Her network is effective because it both supports and challenges
her. Deb’s relationships help her gain influence, broaden her
expertise, learn new skills, and find purpose and balance. Deb
values and nurtures them. “Make friends so that you have
friends when you need friends” is her motto.
“My current role is really a product of a relationship I formed
over a decade ago that came back to me at the right time,”
she explains. “People may chalk it up to luck, but I think
more often than not luck happens through networks where
people give first and are authentic in all they do.”
Over the past 15 years, we’ve worked with many executives
like Deb, at more than 300 companies. What began as organizational research – helping management teams understand
and capitalize on the formal and informal social networks of
their employees – has since metamorphosed into personal
programs, which teach individual executives to increase
their effectiveness by leveraging their networks.
The old adage “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is
true. But it’s more nuanced than that. In spite of what most
self-help books say, network size doesn’t usually matter. In
fact, we’ve found that individuals who simply know a lot of
people are less likely to achieve standout performance, because they’re spread too thin.
Political animals with lots of connections to corporate and
industry leaders don’t win the day, either. Yes, it’s important
to know powerful people, but if they account for too much
of your network, then your peers and subordinates often
perceive you as overly self-interested, and you may lose support as a result.
The data we’ve collected point to a different model for networking. The executives who consistently rank in the top
20% of their companies in both performance and well-being
have diverse but select networks like Deb’s – made up of
high-quality relationships with people who come from several different spheres and from up and down the corporate
hierarchy. These high performers, we have found, tap into
six critical kinds of connections, which enhance their careers
and lives in a variety of ways.
Through our work advising individual managers, we’ve also
identified a four-step process that will help any executive
develop this kind of network. But first, let’s take a look at
some common networking mistakes.
Getting It Wrong
Many people take a misguided approach to networking. They
go astray by building imbalanced networks, pursuing the
wrong kind of relationships, or leveraging relationships ineffectively. These people might remain successful for a time,
but often they will hit a plateau or see their career derailed
because their networks couldn’t prompt or support a critical