How many "best friends" do you have? Social scientists say most people count just four friends with whom they can discuss very important matters, but the maximum possible number of such friends is around six. With rare exceptions, it's just not practical for anyone to maintain close, truly meaningful relationships with more than six people.
Super-successful people know this better than anyone. In the survey research I did for my book Business Brilliant, I found that the wealthier you are, the fewer "best business friends" you have. Specifically, when asked to count how many people they closely network with in order to source new business, the average number was 4.8 for millionaires who have a net worth over $30 million and 5.7 for millionaires who have a net worth below $10 million. Ordinary middle-class people? They reported an average of nine close contacts. That's right. The people at the lowest level of financial success counted the highest number of closenetworking contacts.
The reason is very simple. If you count nine people as very close, the odds are you're not really close to them at all, which means they won't be inclined to offer their close network connections with you. If, on the other hand, you are very close to six highly-connected people, as most super-successful people are, those six people will make their networks available to you, giving you potential access to 36 more people, as well as access to their networks, by which time your effective network numbers in the hundreds.
Size Is Only One Part of a Strong Network
Researchers who study networking, however, say that network size isn't the most important thing. Network structure makes an even bigger difference, and the strongest networks are structured strategically with a small core that branches out to encompass lots of people who, most importantly, don't know each other. Build a network like that, and you put yourself in the center as a connector who can make introductions, summon resources, and create valuable interactions in ways no one else can. Being the linchpin, the go-between, is what entrepreneurship is all about. Entre, after all, is the French word for "between."
So while there's nothing wrong with counting 500 or 5,000 people in your online networks, the more important thing to do is to follow the example of the super-wealthy and design your core network to be tight, strong, and, above all, made up of just a few select people who will need you in order to reach each other.
Here's how to do it:
1. Write down a list of a dozen key people.
These are the people you would go to tomorrow for help in finding new work of the kind that you do best. Last week I wrote about how luck always favors people with focus and purpose. That's especially true with networking. You first need to identify your ideal work situation or type of business deal. Only then are you ready to take stock of whom you'll need to help find it.
2. Rank the top six people who are best positioned to help you.
Let's say you lead a cake-baking business. As a baker, you might rely on business referrals from a dozen or more caterers, wedding planners, and party planners. From this list, sort out those people who are strongest and most likely to send high-value work your way. Then, after ranking the top six, figure out if any of them know each other. Maybe your top six includes a caterer and a party planner who often work closely together. If that's the case, drop the one with the least clout and pick a replacement from your original list of 12.
3. Label six file folders from one to six.
You've now identified the six people on whom your livelihood and dreams depend, at least for the near future. What do you think you'll need to know about such important people? Collect all the information you can in each of your six ranked folders. (These can be electronic folders, physical folders, or both.) Fill each folder with items from company websites, corporate board memberships, charity involvements. Don't forget the names of spouses and children. These are your six best business friends, after all.
4. Make a seventh folder.
This folder serves as your "bench" folder, where you can toss information about all the peripheral players in your network, the ones you might need to call on when the value of one of your regulars falters. Networks are always in flux. People come and go, your priorities might change. Having six people in your core and another dozen or so on your bench maintains a healthy balance between focus and flexibility.
5. Make network maintenance a regular Monday morning event.
Most super-successful people consider their networks one of their most precious assets. Treat your network accordingly. Manage it as you would any asset portfolio. You want to be on the lookout for new promising network members and consider dialing back contact with connections who are no long aligned with your goals.
The other key thing to remember about this science is that social networks tend to grow in the direction of whatever you feed them. If you fill your network with college buddies, you'll get lots of invitations to events that might have interested you back when you were in school. But if you manage your portfolio of contacts wisely, and feed it with people who are important to your work and command greater resources than you have access to, you'll be growing in a direction that positions you for sustained future success.