10 Ways to Diversify an Inbred Network
Networks are essential for collaboration, innovation, and career development. But too many executives have networks that, while they may be large, don’t have enough diversity to be effective.
For the past fifteen years, I have asked the executives I teach to list the people with whom they have discussed important work matters over the past few months. Then, I ask them to fill out a grid in which they identify who knows whom among the people on that list. Invariably, most of the people they talk to also know and talk to each other. This kind of network, while cozy and cohesive, is, simply put, inbred. It also tends to be internal, operational (not strategic), and historical, an artifact of the executive’s past work history and not his or her future possibilities. It turns out that this kind of network is also deadly for collaboration.
Consider three ways in which building broader (less inbred) networks can help you become a more collaborative leader:
First, your network is the best means of learning about great collaborative opportunities. Remember, collaboration is overrated if you haven’t got the right project. How do you stay current with what is happening in the great wide world if your network is mostly internal and operational?
Second, your network is a tool for attracting the best people to the collaborative opportunities you have identified. Without a broad network, you will be tempted to keep staffing your project with the “usual suspects.” The research is clear on this one: for a more innovative and profitable result, over time you are better off with a mix of newcomers and old-timers, and a mix of people who work well together and people who have never worked together before.
Third, your network will help you evolve with your environment and industry, even if your formal role or assignment has not changed. In fact, it is the only way to catapult yourself into a new arena. GE’s Beth Comstock (noted in our HBR article “Are You a Collaborative Leader?”) recently gave me a great example of how this works. “I am constantly resetting my filter on what people and groups make the most sense to get to know,” she said. “Eight years ago, it was important for me to get to know marketing and sales leaders in other companies as we were rebuilding these functions. Right now, I’m focused on global innovation and especially getting to know new start-up companies and entrepreneurs in countries like Israel and South Korea that might be good partners for us in the clean-tech and consumer health spaces.” Her title is the same but her collaborative power has evolved and with it, her company’s.
So how do you branch out? Here’s my list of the top 10 ways to expand your network’s collaborative potential:
- Spend time at a start-up within your business sector. Consider why incumbents rarely lead the way in new products and services.
- Attend a conference you have never before attended. Meet at least three new people. Follow up with them afterward.
- Start a LinkedIn or Facebook group. Be the connector for this group of people.
- Spend a day with a millennial in your company. Learn more about how he or she uses social media.
- Get in touch with a venture capitalist. Find out how he or she thinks about leadership and innovation.
- Teach a course at a university or local college. Learn from your students.
- Be a guest speaker at a local or national event. Use it to build or strengthen your brand around a particular area of expertise.
- Go to lunch with a peer from a competing company. Learn more about your market value.
- Start a blog. Find out who reads it and how far it travels.
- Take advantage of your next business trip to reconnect with someone with whom you’ve lost touch. Have them help you connect with someone new.
Try any of these out and tell us about what you learned from the “experiment.”