In his recent book, Rain Power (2014), Steven Zuckerman describes a six-step plan to teach executives how to develop new business. One of the book’s key recommendations is for executives to create a broad and diverse network of high-caliber, decision-makers (whom Mr. Zuckerman refers to as the “top ten percent of the top ten percent”). In providing a helpful guide for executives to hone the skills which are necessary for obtaining new customers, Rain Power represents the newest addition in a long line of books and articles which can trace their origins back to a ground-breaking article written by Brian Uzzi and Shannon Dunlap, “How to Build Your Network,” that appeared in 2005 in the Harvard Business Review. This brief article summarizes a few, simple steps for creating potent, personal networks that I teach to both new and seasoned executives attending a globally-focused, graduate degree program in business.
Diverse Networks – A Powerful System for Creating New Business Opportunities
Diverse networks deliver the following three important, and unique, advantages to executives: (i) obtaining private information – personal contacts often provide information not currently found in the public realm that can give an important edge to an executive, such as the release date of a new product or what a particular interviewer looks for in a candidate; (ii) access to a diverse array of skill sets – communicating with diverse contacts can help an executive develop more, complete, creative and unbiased views of issues of importance in the executive’s daily life because doing so allows the executive to come into contact with a lot of different (and often, good) ideas; and (iii)gain power – developing a diverse network helps an executive obtain vital resources by allowing the executive to form strong ties with an array of individuals who can provide new business to the executive’s company, or equally important, act as key information brokers connecting the executive with other potent networks. (Uzzi/Dunlap 2005.)
In addition, studies have shown that developing a carefully crafted network results, not just in obtaining new customers and professional advancement, but also provides the added bonus of creating a more fulfilling personal life.
How do Executives Undercut Their Ability to Develop a Potent Network?
Executives often undercut their ability to develop a truly potent network by all too often falling into two, self-created traps. First, executives disproportionately tend to make network contacts that resemble them in terms of experience, training, worldview, and so on (the “self-similarity” trap). (Uzzi/Dunlap 2005.) If you restrict your client development activities to only attending professional conferences that attract participants that are only in your particular industry (e.g., investment banking), you’ve fallen victim to the self-similarity trap. Second, executives often populate their network with the people they tend to spend the most time with, such as colleagues located in close proximity (the “proximity” trap). (Uzzi/Dunlap 2005.) If you have ever attended a marketing-focused cocktail party hosted by your organization to celebrate its customers, but you’ve chosen to spend the entire evening talking only to your colleagues and not to your customers, you’ve fallen into the proximity trap. In combination, these two traps create a limited and inbred network. (Uzzi/Dunlap 2005.)
What Can Executives Do? Forge a Better Network
Executives can overcome these two self-imposed barriers through the “shared activities” principle: that is, by pursuing certain types of activities which connect the executive with diverse others where such activities: (i) bring together a cross-section of disparate individuals around a common point of interest; (ii) allow for connection through unscripted behaviors and natural responses; and (iii) provide an opportunity for close working relationships through group celebrations or commiserations. (Uzzi/Dunlap 2005.)
A classic example of the shared activities principle is volunteering to serve on the board of a not-for-profit organization, such as the United Way or a local legal services organization. If you pursue such an activity passionately, you are likely to fit it into your busy schedule, as well as develop interdependence on, and create a strong personal network with, the others who are involved with you in the activity. (Uzzi/Dunlap 2005.) Moreover, you will often find that those individuals who partake in shared activities are generally the sort of high caliber, decision-makers in their own professional worlds, and they will remember you when a new business opportunity arises, and they may also be information brokers who could connect you with new and untapped networks. There are many other types of shared activities.
Importantly, if you engage in just a few shared activities during any given year, you will be well along your way in creating a diverse, network which could produce potent long-term results, such as new business, professional advancement, and increased personal happiness.