Networking and Collaboration are deemed by many among the critical skills to succeed in the Future of Work. With technology driving a continuous evolution of the way we interact with others, and Work itself transforming thanks to the different types of relationship it can create, understanding what’s needed to develop this skillset is a must.
We have already talked about Collaboration reviewing the book with the same title by Morten Hansen. It is in that book that we looked at Networking as a critical skill to enable Collaboration.
Beyond Social Media
The problem with Networking today is that we often live in the equation:
“my network = my contacts on Linked, Facebook, Instagram…”
The above is for sure, not correct. Although these tools can be significant in enabling our networking capabilities, the simple fact of linking to someone on a Social Network does not mean we have a mindful relationship with her. Morten Hansen warns us about one point: we live in a society where a myth has taken a strong foothold: that we live in a small world. Due to the research of Stanley Milgram at Yale University, we believe in the folklore of “six degrees of separation”. That two strangers might discover a common connection doesn’t mean that we’re always a few steps away from the information we need. (M. Hansen, Collaboration, page 58).
The reality is that the world is not small at all. The overload of data and information on one side joined with the way to easy to add virtual contacts and communicate across the world. However, they seem to reinforce the idea of a small world, have instead widened the need for more “networking skills”.
What is Networking?
But what is Networking exactly? I like the definition available at Cleverism: Networking refers to the ability of exchanging ideas and information with groups as well as individuals that have shared interests, such that long-term relationships are developed for mutual benefit.
This definition already points out to one fact: adding addresses to your contact app, or linking profiles on Linkedin is not enough. Networking is a two-way process of exchanging knowledge. Which is where the added value comes from.
This exchange implies the needed support of a few competencies we have already seen:
- Curiosity: curious people tend to have more extensive networks because they continuously show interest in acquiring more information and discover new things.
- Listening: people that are proficient at listening have an advantage, as they will be able to capture more easily value in the reciprocal relationships that Networking helps create. This is the basis also to Build Trust, a key enabler for
- Learning Agility: it’s the primary driver that allows for the development of strong network ties. Some networks are based purely on transactional exchanges, but the most reliable networks are based on exchanges on knowledge, which means they help focus on Learning.
How to Improve your Networking Skills
Many skills are involved in Networking. There are up to 10 layers involved. What is essential are, however, a few suggestions that help to put Networking into perspective, and go beyond the critical “first impression“.
Build the right Mindset
Mindset is the cornerstone of building a successful Networking Capability. In too many cases, the “working” part of the work seems to take preeminence. Which can create significant issues, as you will end up building staples of business-cards. No matter whom you’re trying to build a relationship with, treating that person as a friend rather than a business contact will take you much further with the connection. So, think about how you would approach a potential friend.
Build Interactions Moments.
There’s no networking without interactions. Despite being a seemingly obvious statement, this is one of the main issues in the current, social-media intensive world. To build robust networking ties, you need to develop human interactions, possibly in person, at least some time. This is why it’s so important to take part in conferences, events, workshops, etc., as these are all chances to build personal life relationships, that they can be maintained through technology. Networking events are often considered a loss of time, but the reality is that they still are the best way to create contacts. But Networking cannot be limited to these.
As per the definition above, you need to ensure a basis of shared interest exists. You need to create the right opportunity for this to happen, which often means also being selective on the events you select.
Have a Vision
Networking just for the sake of making contacts often don’t land anywhere. As with many things, it’s useful to have a Vision or Purpose in the way you set up your Network. This will allow you to be focused, but above all, to be authentic.
Get some help
Starting a network can be complicated, especially if this comes after an important event in your life (like moving abroad) that imposes a restart. The easiest trick is to find what some define as “super-connectors“, people that are good at Networking and are happy to help others out. It’s usually pretty easy to identify them, and it is good to start with getting in touch with these.
What if I’m an introvert?
Often the main critique is that if you’re an introvert, Networking is impossible. True, it can get complicated. And there are many techniques and tips that can help you figure out how to be better at Networking. Concentrating on the content of the relationship is however what is vital. As an introvert myself, I notice that what really pulls me in making contact (and maintaining) it is the content of the conversation. This makes me a lot more selective, right, but again: it’s not the size that matters, but rather the quality of your Network. Also, it is essential to understand that while Networking is vital, the degree of Collaboration still needs to be aligned with your personality and temper.
What makes a Network work.
If we zoom out from the individual to the Network itself, it’s interesting to notice that there are three types of profiles that help the Network grow and perform. According to research by Rob Cross, these can be identified as:
- Brokers: these are people that are great at acting within the network and bridge silos. They are curious and tend to explore new ideas continually. They have different perspectives and focus on many things. Often these people are Multipotentialite at heart.
- Connectors: these are the people that get the stuff done. They tend to organise others within the Network, often acting as experts. They are usually active in Problem Solving. And in many cases, they help to bridge different networks.
- Energisers: are the people that provide support. They tend to inspire others to act, valuing the connections in the Network. They fully engage at the moment and provide positive energy flows by striving towards a vision.
All these people share attributes of authentic Leadership. But the interesting aspect of Leadership within a Network is that it is not linked to status or level, but instead on the number of active connections that are created and maintained in the Network. Which is the basis of the concept itself of Network Analysis, where the value of relationships within an organisation is inspected and validated. Strong employees networks are scientifically linked to innovation, which its why Networking Skills are so essential.
One of the problems with Networks is that often we also have profiles of people that are detrimental to the growth of the Network itself.
- Resisters (as opposed to Energisers) are people that pursue personal or local goals, thus slowing or derailing communication within the Network.
- Stoppers (as opposed to Connectors) are people that “stop the flow”, particularly holding knowledge.
- Bottlenecks (as opposed to Brokers) are instead people that tend to apply the “rule of the organisation”, i.e. move the communication only across organisational hierarchy and by way of concentrating power and authority.
It’s interesting to notice that in many organisations the above roles are merely “sticking to the rules” of traditional bureaucracy and hierarchy. We have seen how this can be a big issue, for example, in Ed Catmull’s book, Creativity, Inc. Removing obstacles for successful Networking becomes a critical skill for leaders, especially if we want to drive a consistent Creative culture, which is also why many new models are putting under scrutiny the role of managers.
Conclusion: beyond Networking and Collaboration
Networking is a complex entity. As we have seen, there are three components to it: Personal Skills, Leadership Style within the Network and Organisation Design(in terms of rules of the game) that promotes Networking through proper culture, value and incentives.
In today’s world, we often have the issue of having to escape a collaborative overload. Meetings, Project Teams, cross-functional collaboration initiatives, all elements that seem to add complexity. to the way we work. Technology is often amplifying this effect, which is particularly keen on women, often carrying alone the burden of too much pressure.
There are some new tools online that allow you to assess your Networking Skills. I particularly like the tool developed by Rob Cross and accessible through Network Assessment, which will enable you also to collect feedback from peers and your team.
How can you, as an individual, improve your Networking Skills? I hope this post has given you some insights on this quest.
Are you ready to be a better networker?