3 Expert Tips for Strengthening Personal Networks
Whether you're recruiting a talented executive or trying to reach an actual decison-maker for a key sale, you'll improve your job performance if you have a stronger personal network.
That much, you know. Actually doing it is another matter. A recent post by Deborah Petersen on the Stanford Graduate School of Business site provides 10 fantastic tips on how to do it. The tips come from a new e-book coauthored by Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford professor of organizational behavior, and Ross Walker, who graduated Stanford's MBA program in 2005. (Walker also runs a real estate investment fund and owns a small stake of the Oakland Athletics, a Major League Baseball team.)
Here are three of their 10 tips:
1. Face time counts. Citing research by Ronald Burt, a professor at the University of Chicago, Pfeffer and Walker write that "being even one step removed from the person within the network almost completely reduces the benefits to you." In other words: You'll beneft from meeting others face-to-face.
Burt is well known for his theories about the networking gaps or "structural holes" within organizations. He recently demonstrated the concept to Inc by sharing a network map of a global pharmaceutical company. The map shows that only one person at the company is networked with all of the top executives.
You might think that this one person was an executive too. But in fact, this key connector was several echelons below the C-suite in the hierarchy. The point is that while face time matters, you need to think hard about whom you want face time with. Don't automatically target the highest person in an organization, for he or she might not be the key connector.
Moreover, there are business insights you're more likely to glean in person than via phone or email. Noah Breslow, the CEO of OnDeck, provides a great example:
I was overwhelmed by the level of dialogue customers were willing to engage in when I visited them in their places of business. Several of the visits lasted for hours, allowing me to ask follow-up questions and gain insights that would have been impossible to get in a phone call or quick meeting. After settling in and getting comfortable with me, customers offered valuable and candid feedback on what OnDeck needs to do to improve.
Take the hair-salon owner, for example: He was really surprised that when he was considering taking a loan from us it was hard for him to find information about OnDeck from his local bank or accountant. Clearly, building brand awareness with local service providers is an area of opportunity for us to pursue, and he gave me some great ideas to take back to the team.
That's the type of honesty you're far more likely to receive in person, when the deliverer of the criticism can cushion the blow with both non-verbal gestures and softening phrases like "to play devil's advocate."
2. Strenthen your weak ties. "Do not underestimate the importance of 'weak ties,'" writes Petersen. The term "weak ties" refers to connections who are not in your immediate world. Their locations and industries are different from yours. And that's exactly why you need to strengthen them.
The expert on weak ties is Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter. In 1973, he discovered that 82 percent of professionals found new jobs through the contacts they rarely saw (i.e. their weak ties). The notion that weak ties can help in a job search or any networking cause is still generally accepted. (Contrarians, however, will love the work of Boston University professor Marshall von Alstyne, who has argued that strong ties matter more in fast-moving environments.)
Why is strengthening your weak ties a good idea? "Your good friends tend to be from the same industry, neighborhood, religious group, etc.," explains LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman in his book The Start-Up of You. "Consequently, their information is similar to yours--a job a good friend knows about, you probably already know about, too."
In other words, your weak ties possess the freshest information: they can tell you about jobs and opportunities you haven't already heard about. That's why in strengthening them, you'll strengthen your network as a whole.
3. Carefully consider your approach. "Crafting emails can be an art sometimes," writes Walker. "I always take time to think of the subject line. I try to write something there that reflects a connection. For example, if you are a student and you are contacting an alumnus, I might write 'Current Stanford GSB Student Inquiry,' as I know that most alumni enjoy hearing from current students for a number of reasons."
Beyond that advice, Walker recommends being extremely specific with your networking requests. For instance, when Walker wanted to reach Stanford alum Chip Conley, who founded the boutique hotel chain Joie de Vivre Hospitality, he submitted a one-page proposal seeking an unpaid summer internship. The idea was to give Conley "something tangible to consider," rather than a vague request for time at his convenience.
By making a specific request--especially a request with the potential to bring you into daily contact with the object of your networking--you're also more likely to create a strong tie. If you meet someone once and never seem him or her again, you're unlikely to create a tie that binds. As soon as you're out of their sight, you're likely out of their mind. Or as Pfeffer and Walker write: "Once you've left their presence, they are not going to spend more time thinking about you."