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Are You Taking Full Advantage of Your Network? How to Leverage Your Connections for Broader Organizational Gains


In today's fast-paced business world, building and maintaining a strong professional network has become increasingly important for career and organizational success. While many rightly view networking as a means to an end—such as landing a new job or finding a new client— tapping into one's network solely for these purposes means missing out on its vast untapped potential for broader gains.


Today we will explore how strategic networking offer far greater value when leveraged to advance organizational priorities beyond securing discrete transactions or opportunities.


Research Foundation


Scholars have long emphasized the strategic importance of networks for individuals and organizations alike (Cross and Parker 2004; Podolny and Baron 1997). Strong, beneficial relationships can generate new ideas (Burt 2004), facilitate knowledge transfer (Reagans and McEvily 2003), and boost innovative performance (Obstfeld 2005). Meanwhile, networks motivate cooperation and information sharing when built on trust, shared norms and mutual understanding (Coleman 1988; Putnam 2000). To fully leverage this power, leaders must recognize networks as long-term strategic resources requiring nurture and activation, not mere short-term transactional platforms (Kilduff and Tsai 2003).


Developing Network Consciousness


The first step towards maximizing a network's potential is developing what networking scholars term "network consciousness" - a mindset shift that views relationships not just as transactional platforms but as long-term strategic assets requiring stewardship (Kilduff and Tsai 2003). Leaders must recognize that their professional interactions continuously shape how others perceive both them and their organization. With this awareness comes responsibility for cultivating goodwill and trustworthiness.


Consider the example of a pharmaceutical executive who has learned that people often judge her company based on their personal interactions with her, not just product messaging. To build positive perceptions of her organization's values and reputation, she prioritizes developing genuine rapport during encounters while also keeping colleagues abreast of her company's initiatives and impacts. Over time, her colleagues become brand ambassadors while also serving as an 'idea bank' for advancing company priorities.


Mapping Your Network Ecosystem


As networking consciousness grows, leaders should strive to understand their networks' full composition - who is connected to whom, what kinds of expertise or resources different contacts provide, and which relationships could aid strategic priorities with activation (Burt 2001). This network "mapping" yields invaluable insights.

For instance, a social entrepreneur realized her network included local professors well-versed in the community issues tackled by her organization. She learned professors actively sought project partners for their students. Cross-sector collaboration not only addressed shared goals but fueled knowledge exchange benefiting all. By understanding her network ecosystem more holistically, she activated overlooked value-generators.


Strategically Investing in Key Relationships


While maintaining broad connections, prioritizing investment in strategically important relationships generates outsized returns. For example, a nonprofit director strategically nurtured bonds with high-capacity donors. Beyond securing funds, these donors advocated for the nonprofit with influential peers, reviewed strategy proposals with subject matter expertise, and introduced new partnership opportunities - efforts multiplying the initial investment many times over.


To select high-potential connections, leaders evaluate contacts' motivation, positional influence, complementary skills or assets, and potential to unlock new opportunities. By investing in such strategic relationships with intention, networks become engines driving broader organizational progress.


Cultivating Knowledge Exchange


Systematic knowledge exchange within networks represents a powerful yet overlooked asset. A law firm partner promoted collaboration by holding quarterly roundtables where allies in legal and associated industries shared key learnings and brainstormed challenges facing their fields. Rather than competing, participants cooperated to stay apprised of trends and jointly problem-solved, strengthening the firm's services. Reciprocity deepened trust between contacts across organizations.


Leaders should craft formats like gatherings, newsletters or forums where network participants can pollinate one another with worthwhile information and perspectives, breeding innovation through distributed intelligence and complementarity of skills.


Tapping the Power of Weak Ties


Weak network ties - loose connections between contacts separated by multiple degrees - unlock novel, non-redundant knowledge assets when properly activated (Granovetter 1973). A vice president of a manufacturing firm astutely utilized acquaintances across industries at a local chamber of commerce. Through them, he encountered creative solutions to persistent problems from outsider views, learned of innovators developing relevant technologies early, and identified new markets for expansion.


Leaders gain unique benefits tapping into the novelty residing in more peripheral members of their extended professional constellations. Strategic investment develops these "weak ties" into productive relationships fueling organizational growth and resilience.


Conclusion


Leadership networks constitute far more than platforms for landing discrete new opportunities—they represent strategic assets capable of driving multi-dimensional progress when cultivated with care and purposefulness. Through developing network consciousness, mapping connectivity ecosystems, prioritizing high-value relationships, cultivating knowledge exchange, and activating weak ties, leaders empower their connections to generate ongoing collaboration and innovation benefitting organizational aims well beyond initial transactions. With the right mindset and approach, professional networks become powerful tools to open doors, spark ideas, spread best practices, mobilize complementary skills and much more - substantially amplifying a leader's individual impact. Those who recognize and realize this untapped power stand to gain tremendous competitive advantage in today's interconnected business landscape.


References


  • Burt, R. S. (2001). Structural holes versus network closure as social capital. In N. Lin, K. Cook, & R. S. Burt (Eds.), Social capital: Theory and research (pp. 31–56). New York, NY: Aldine De Gruyter.

  • Burt, R. S. (2004). Structural holes and good ideas. American Journal of Sociology, 110(2), 349–399. https://doi.org/10.1086/421787

  • Coleman, J. S. (1988). Social capital in the creation of human capital. American Journal of Sociology, 94, S95–S120. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2780243

  • Cross, R., & Parker, A. (2004). The hidden power of social networks. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

  • Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), 1360–1380. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2776392

  • Kilduff, M., & Tsai, W. (2003). Social networks and organizations. London, England: Sage.

  • Obstfeld, D. (2005). Social networks, the tertius iungens orientation, and involvement in innovation. Administrative Science Quarterly, 50(1), 100–130. https://www.jstor.org/stable/30037727

  • Podolny, J. M., & Baron, J. N. (1997). Resources and relationships: Social networks and mobility in the workplace. American Sociological Review, 62(5), 673–693. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2657354

  • Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

  • Reagans, R., & McEvily, B. (2003). Network structure and knowledge transfer: The effects of cohesion and range. Administrative Science Quarterly, 48(2), 240–267. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3556658

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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