one of the happiest, most successful executives we know is a woman named deb. 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: people. 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, your peers and subordinates often perceive you to be 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. (see the sidebar “are you networking impaired?”) 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 transition.