"Which of the following do you think contributes the most to career or business success?" I asked the audience at a recent speaking gig, listing some of the usual suspects: Intelligence. Creativity. Hard work. Networking. Talent. Perseverance. Leadership. Execution. 

The consensus? Networking, particularly the size of your network. 

The audience felt that how much you know is important (intelligence was ranked second), but how many people you know matters even more.

But maybe not. 

According to research conducted by professor Rob Cross of the University of Virginia (a school that didn't want me, but hey, I'm not bitter):

Traditionally, self-help books on networks focus on going out and building mammoth Rolodexes.

What we've found is that this isn't what high-performers do. What seems to distinguish the top 20 percent of performers across a wide-range of organizations is not so much a big network.

In fact, there is usually a negative statistically significant likelihood of being a top performer and knowing a lot of people. [My emphasis.]

That doesn't mean top performers don't network, though.

What distinguishes them is how they make connections.

  • They develop "open" networks. They build ties outside their specialty or field. Instead of limiting their network to people within their industry or area of interest, they branch out. Research shows that people who build open networks earn higher salaries and get promoted more rapidly.
  • They manage "balanced ties" across organizational lines to obtain information and influence impact. They network not just across functional lines, but also up and down hierarchical levels. They know a few CEOs. They know a few shipping clerks. As a result, they learn things others might not. They gain support others might not. Interestingly, they gain a sense of purpose and satisfaction that implicitly leads to higher performance--we all work harder when we care.
  • They nurture relationships that extend their abilities. Only connecting with people like you? You're unlikely to develop greater perspective, insight, or knowledge.
  • They exhibit behaviors that build high quality connections. Creating five meaningful connections--five mutually-beneficial connections--is more powerful than racking up 500 surface-level connections.

Sum it all up, and two things stand out:

  1. The more open your network, the better.
  2. The higher the quality of the relatively few connections you do make, the better.

Focusing solely on developing relationships within your area limits your ability to learn, and grow, and make helpful connections--and just as importantly, to connect with people who can help each other.

So how can you develop a more open network, one based on meaningful connections? 

Simple. As Ted Lasso would say, "Be curious."

Be open to learning about other people -- especially people who are different from you. Different fields. Different backgrounds. Different perspectives. Different experiences.

You already know people similar to you. The key to building an open network is meeting a few people who aren't like you.

And then taking the time to build those relationships. Give, with no expectation of ever receiving. Compliment, with no accompanying request for a favor. Introduce, without expecting an introduction in return.

Check in simply because you thought of that person.... not because something you need made you to think of that person.

Do those things, and you'll build stronger connections.

And you'll be a lot more likely to succeed.

And so will they.

Can't beat that.