The size of your network doesn’t matter, but here’s what does.

Take a look at our Twitter account and let me ask you something — did you look at the number of followers we have and more importantly did you make a judgement based on that number? We all do it, it’s natural. While these vanity metrics can tell us something they are far from the whole story. We have all heard social media gurus tell us that it’s not the number of followers or friends that is important. While this is true it lacks an alternative approach.

If size doesn’t matter, then what does?

The starting point for this months focus on networking for the 21st century is the belief that there is a lot that science knows about networking that business is yet to pick up on. Luckily the field of network science starts to offer some actionable insights that help to challenge our long held beliefs about networking. It is not the size of your network that matters, but rather the structure of the network and your position within that set of relationships — the benefit you get from this is your ‘social capital’.

What does this mean?

Let’s take a look at the network below. James and Alex have the same number of strong and weak ties but they have different structures and this has a significant impact on their value and power within the network. Imagine the situation, you have a new business idea for the healthcare sector that you want to move on but you need a software developer to work with you to make it a reality. You know two developers in your network who have the perfect skill set to make it a reality. The question is: who are you likely to approach with the opportunity, Alex or James? Who has the most value?

All of Alex’s connections are within the software developer network, with indirect connections to VCs and the healthcare sector through friends of friends. Given James’ position in the network, he is a bridge between the groups and therefore a conduit for information between the three groups. Alex is likely to have a lot of redundant information as many of his connections are what network scientists would call ‘structurally equivalent people’. If you go and speak to a software developer who spends almost all his time with similar software developers you are going to hear the same thing. James is what network scientists call a broker, he bridges the gap between separate groups.

James’s position affords him a number of advantages:

  • Access to a wider variety of information
  • Early access to that information
  • And control over information diffusion

This allows James to deploy this information strategically to create value where previously there was none by connecting people and ideas.

In research carried out by Rob Cross (that we will discuss in more detail below), no other factor was as important for determining career success than the extent to which a person is a broker within a network. Research consistently shows that brokers within a network receive higher salaries, more promotions and increased industry recognition. Let’s dig a little deeper and look at the implications are for your networking activities.

Challenging the Status Quo

Traditionally advice on networking has focused on looking at what people who know a lot of people do and copying their behaviour. This invariably means focusing on  the surface level behaviour such as building up as big a network as possible through activities such as the number of meetings, making a lot of calls and kissing a lot of babies (ok maybe this last one is only for the politicians)… Rob Cross at The University of Virginia, carried out research over 5 years looking not at what people with big networks do but rather on what the high performers do. Cross found that there is often a statistically significant negative likelihood of knowing a lot of people and being a top performer.

If this is the case then what do high performers do? Cross found that high performers manage their networks in very specific ways:

  1. They look to develop and encourage a range of different ideas and information in their networks.
  2. They get out from behind their desk and maintain balanced relationships across organisational lines, departments within their organisation as well as out with the company’s four walls. As well as balancing of kinds of benefit, information, political support they receive from their network.
  3. They look to extend their abilities — to build networks that challenge them, not surrounding themselves with people who know what they know.
  4. They build purposeful, high-quality relationships that actually drive ideas and innovation towards them on a voluntary basis over time. Building up a large number of connections within your closed network is easy because it is comfortable, but it is not where the value lies.

As you build and nurture your network ask yourself are you following these principles or are you falling into old comfortable habits?

While there is a lot of competitive advantage to be had by the person who can bridge the gap between separate networks effectively, it is not always an easy thing to do. It is often very enticing to stick with what we know best, but becoming a high performer requires stepping out of your comfort zone and stepping into the discomfort that comes from the increased uncertainty that will ensue.

Being an effective networker in the 21st century requires you to hold many different and often contradictory viewpoints; join the dots that others may not see and translate that insight into a language that people will understand. The question is — are you up for it?

Leave a Reply