Ability versus Relationships

“It’s not what you know, but who you know that matters.” Parents, teachers, politicians, and company executives often reject the idea that relationships matter more than knowledge. Even so, examples of favoritism versus merit abound in everyday society. The boy or girl who plays behind the less talented child of the Coach of the soccer team has doubts. College fraternities and sororities compete for the student with the most alumni recommendations, often overlooking those being the first in their families to graduate high schools.

Having the right connections is valuable, the reason 33 parents risked public disgrace, financial fines, and prison terms to enroll their children in the freshman classes at Yale, Stanford, and other elite universities[i]. The influence of who you know extends around the world. A study by the London School of Economics, for example, found that alumni from the UK’s nine leading public schools – Charterhouse, Eton, Harrow, Merchant Taylor’s, Rugby, Shrewsbury, St Paul’s, Westminster, and Winchester College – are 94 times more likely to reach the elite than those who attended other schools, despite educating fewer than one in 500 (0.15%) English students.[ii] Relationships continue to matter, even as people mature and become more talented. A Pew Research found that 80% of job seekers used professional contacts, close friends or family, and personal connections to find jobs.[iii]

Business leaders know that networking—creating a fabric of personal contacts who will provide support, feedback, insight, resources, and information—is one of the most difficult challenges required of a successful executive. Relational  – not analytical  – tasks are the core of leadership roles.

Networking is a lot like nutrition and fitness: we know what to do, the hard part is making it a top priority.

Herminia Ibarra

Types of Networks

People typically engage in four types of networks:

  • Social. Members use networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to connect with family, friends, and others sharing similar interests. They function as a one-size-fits-all meeting place, being public and lightly regulated. Consequently, they are popular channels for businesses or individuals selling products, services, and philosophies. They have become the favorite method to spread misinformation, commercial, political, and social. According to Pew Research, almost one-half of people under age 30 get most of the news from social media.[iv] 
  • Operational. These networks are composed of people who are necessary or helpful to performing a job. Membership is straightforward – direct reports, superiors, peers within an operational unit, internal players with the power to block or support a project, and key outsiders such as suppliers, distributors, and customers. Membership is binary: wither you are necessary to do the job, or you are not. As people rise in the organization, external contacts typically increase as their duties expand.
  • Personal. Networks intended to gain new perspectives or social skills necessary to progress in their careers differ from other networks with members from professional associations, alumni groups, clubs, and personal interest communities. These networks are intentional, created for important referrals, information, coaching, and mentoring. Seeking external professional relationships is an important step to understand the environment and requirements of the business positions aspired to or currently held.
  • Strategic. Strategic networks typically overlap operational and personal networks as they consist of many of the same members. This type of network is especially critical in the transition from manager to leader, plugging into a set or relationships and information sources that “collectively embody the power to achieve personal and organizational goals.”[v]

Forms of Networks

PurposeGetting work done efficiently; maintaining the capacities and functions required of the group.Enhancing personal and professional development; providing referrals to useful information and contacts.Figuring out future priorities and challenges: getting stakeholder support for them.
Location and temporal orientationContacts are mostly internal adn oriented toward current demands.Contacts are mostly external and oriented toward current interests and future potential interests.Contacts are internal and external and oriented toward the future.
Players and recruitmentKey contacts are relatively nondicretionary; they are prescribed mostly by the task and organizational structure, so it is very clear who is relevant.Key contacts are mostly discretionary; it is not always clear who is relevant.Key contacts follow from the strategic context and the organizational environment, but specific membership is discretionary; it is not always clear who is relevant.
Network attributes and key behaviors

Depth: building strong working relationships

Breadth: reaching out to contacts who can make referrals.

Leverage: creating inside-outside links.

Source: How Leaders Create and Use Networks, Harvard Business Journal, January 2007

The chart illustrates the difference between the three job- and career-associated networks needed for a successful executive. Social networks are not included since their business use is primarily as a communication channel to customers, employees, shareholders, and the public.

“Six Degrees of Separation” Theory

Six Degrees of Separation

Many people are familiar with the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” based on the concept that any actor or actress who appeared in a movie can be linked to actor Kevin Bacon within six relationships. Few realize that the theory is based on research by social psychologist Stanley Milgram, subsequently vetted by Columbia sociologist Duncan Watts.[vi]  Called “information cascade” or “information contagion,” scientists continue to research the optimum configuration of a human network – size and diversity – to enhance its effectiveness, i.e., contact with the source with needed information through the least number of intermediaries.[vii]

The Power of Leverage

Few people recognize the extent of influence available through networking. Theoretically, if Kevin Bacon had 50 good friends (each of whom also have 50 good friends) willing to introduce him to others in the film industry, he could easily get introductions to 2,500 actors, actresses, directors, film company executives, and others related to the film industry. With access to his friends’ friends, his potential introductions increase to 125,000. Adding the contacts of friends’ friends and their friends, Kevin could easily get an introduction to everyone in the United States associated in the Arts and Entertainment industry (estimated at 5 million individuals[viii]). The accompanying table illustrates the power of leverage with the application of the six degrees of separation theory.

Researchers in 2008[ix] estimated the average person’s personal network size to be 472 individuals, with male networks slightly larger. As networks grow, the larger number of connections yield large numbers of new connections. Sociologists call this phenomenon “preferential attachment.” Once you hit a certain critical mass, your connections take over and you can’t help but be introduced to more and more people.

Optimum Size

A network is more than a collection of names of people with little in common and infrequent contact. An effective network is a web of personal contacts that provide support, feedback, insight, resources, and information. Its maintenance requires careful nurturing through regular one-on-one contacts:

  • Zvi Band, the founder of Contactually, notes the importance of one-on-one relationships, “For us, it’s really all about the quality of the relationships…Sending out one-on-one personalized emails to 30 people could lead to 15 real conversations. Sending out a broadcast email to the same number might only result in a few reads and no replies.”
  • John Ruhlin, founder of the Ruhlin Promotion Group, is committed to a personal relationship, paying an individual thousands of dollars to help send out 500+ personalized, one-on-one emails per month. 

While various sources suggest different network sizes, evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar believes that roughly 150 members is ideal. His work based on historical patterns of human relationships and the size of the human neocortex. “The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us.”[x] Since maintaining each type of network requires similar effort, individuals must balance their contacts among each.

Diversity of Network

Most personal networks are highly clustered—your contacts are likely to be contacts with each other as well. In many cases, the individuals in the personal network lack the diversity to significantly benefit your work or career. Recent research suggests that those who are connected across heterogeneous groups with more-diverse contacts come up with more creative ideas[xi] and original solutions.[xii] Author Frans Johansson, in his book The Medici Effect, suggested that the best ideas emerge from the collision of different industry insights (“Intersectional thinking”). The effect of extraneous knowledge and divergent thought is evident in Steve Jobs’ recall of a calligraphy class at Reed College that inspired the elegant typography of the Apple computer.

The diversity within a personal network can add immeasurable value to its usefulness. Amy Nauiokas, the founder and president of Anthemis, suggests that those building a personal network should ask five friends each month for introductions to people in their extended networks; think about people at different levels and in completely different spaces.[xiii]

Reasons to Build a Personal Network

No matter how smart and talented you are, you will not have the same competitive edge as someone who is well connected. Among the many reasons that justify network building, three are of critical importance. Your network will help you

  1. manage your internal, operating responsibilities,
  2. boost your personal development, confidence, and reputation, and
  3. recognize and evaluate new career and personal opportunities and directions.

The contacts within your personal network are valuable resources that also access other valuable resources. Building a personal network is an investment in yourself, as valuable as a college degree in its long-term returns.

Networking is not about just connecting people. It’s about connecting people with people, peope with ideas, and people with opportunities

Michele Jennae, The COnNeCtworker

Final Thoughts

David Burkus, author of Friend of a Friend, notes most of us neglect our “hidden” networks that exist, discounting their value because we take them for granted. The first step in the creation of a vibrant, useful network is reinvigorating those connections allowed to erode or disappear. Building a network initially seems like an uphill battle. However, according to Burkus, it gets easier overtime. “The people who seem to know everybody may be working less on their networks then you are, but that suggests that eventually your hard work will pay dividends too.”[xiv]

One note of caution: While relationships may help you get a position, they are a means to an end, not the destination.  History is full of men and women overwhelmed by their positions, lacking essential skills, training, or knowledge and ultimately, failing. As employees rise in an organization, the importance of what you know increases. Build your expertise, experience, and relationships simultaneously since each affects how others think of you.

[i] Medina, J., Benner, K. and Taylor, K. (2019) Actresses, Business Leaders and Other Wealthy Parents Charged in U.S. College Entry Fraud. The New York Times. (March 12, 2019) Access through https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/12/us/college-admissions-cheating-scandal.html

[ii] Reeves, A., Friedman, S., Rahal, C. and Flemmen, M. (2017) The Decline and Persistence of the Old Boy: Private Schools and Elite Recruitment  1897-2016. American Sociological Review. (September, 2017) Access through file:///C:/Users/Mike/Downloads/Old%20Boy_ASR.pdf

[iii] Smith, A. (2015) Searching for Work in the Digital Era. Pew Research Center. (November 19, 2015) Access through https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2015/11/19/searching-for-work-in-the-digital-era/

[iv] Mitchall, A., Jurkowitz, M., Oliphant, J. and Shearer, E. (2020) Americans Who Mainly Get Their News on Social Media Are Less Engaged, Less Knowledgeable. Pew Research Center Report. (July. 30) Access through https://www.pewresearch.org/journalism/2020/07/30/americans-who-mainly-get-their-news-on-social-media-are-less-engaged-less-knowledgeable/

[v] Ibarra, H. and Hunter, M. (2007) How Leaders Create and Use Networks. Harvard Business Review. (January, 2007) Access through https://hbr.org/2007/01/how-leaders-create-and-use-networks

[vi] Morse, G. (2003) The Science Behind Six Degrees. Harvard Business Review. (February, 2003) Access through https://hbr.org/2003/02/the-science-behind-six-degrees

[vii] Ibarra and Hunter, 2007

[viii] Staff. (2019) Artists and Other Cultural Workers: A Statistical Portrait. National Endowment for the Arts. (April, 2019) Access through https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/Artists_and_Other_Cultural_Workers.pdf

[ix] McCormick, T., Salganik, M. and Zheng, T. (2010). How Many People Do You Know?: Efficiently Estimating Personal Network Size. Journal of the American Statistical Association. 105. 59-70. 10.1198/jasa.2009.ap08518. Access through https://www.researchgate.net/publication/237014249_How_Many_People_Do_You_Know_Efficiently_Estimating_Personal_Network_Size

[x] Bennett, D. (2013) The Dunbar Number, From the Guru of Social Networks. Bloomberg Economics. (January 11, 2013) Access through https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-01-10/the-dunbar-number-from-the-guru-of-social-networks#p1?sref=tymOleaz

[xi] Burt. R. (2004) Structural Holes and Good Ideas. American Journal of Sociology, Vol.110. No. 2. Pp.349-399. (September 2004) Access through https://www.bebr.ufl.edu/sites/default/files/Burt%20-%202004%20-%20Structural%20Holes%20and%20Good%20Ideas.pdf

[xii] Hargadon, A., & Sutton, R. (1997). Technology Brokering and Innovation in a Product Development Firm. Administrative Science Quarterly, 42(4), 716-749. Access through https://www.jstor.org/stable/2393655?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

[xiii] Nauiokas, A. (2018) How to Diversify Your Professional Network. Harvard Business Review. (August 29,2018) Access through https://hbr.org/2018/08/how-to-diversify-your-professional-network

[xiv] Burkus, D. (2018) Dunbar’s number doesn’t represent the average number of social connections. Quartz at Work. (August 8, 2018) Access through https://qz.com/work/1351400/dunbars-number-doesnt-represent-the-average-number-of-social-connections/

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