Grow Your Network in New Directions to Grow New Opportunities
You understand the value of building a robust professional network and tap in frequently for advice, connections and access to critical resources. But is it possible the people in your network look/sound/act/think a bit too much like you? Are they working in the same industry segment? Living in the same part of the country? Possess the same functional expertise? Know many of the same people you know? That can be a problem.
Although things we share in common can draw people to one another and make it easier to communicate, difference can be a far more powerful driver of connections that link you to resources you don’t already possess. Your career and business are likely to benefit much more when you extend your network in new directions that put you in touch with people whose ideas and contacts are far afield from your own.
The value of different
Research completed nearly 50 years ago by sociologist and Stanford University Professor, Mark Granovetter, Ph.D., on The Strength of Weak Ties is even more important today. He demonstrated that it is the people more at the edges of our lives, rather that at the core, who bring some of the greatest value to our networks. His seminal work (still among the most cited today) revealed that the people we spend the most time with are often too similar to us and too often “swimming in the same pool,” to really bring new ideas into our world.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought Granovetter’s concept home in ways many of us may not have expected. With the shrinking of our professional and personal worlds, most of us have experienced less “news” from beyond our immediate circles, fewer casual interactions with strangers and acquaintances, less novelty to spark new ideas and far fewer opportunities to meet new people. That can get boring from a personal standpoint, but it can be downright suffocating from a professional standpoint.
While there is a strong case for how diversity spurs more creative thinking and innovative problem solving, diversity within your professional network brings very concrete benefits too. In additional research by Granovetter on a random sample of people who had recently changed jobs in the Boston area, more than 83% had found their position through contacts they saw only rarely or occasionally – typical weak ties.
Another study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon analyzed the characteristics of exceptional engineers at Bell Labs, a powerhouse of innovation from the 1920s through the 1980s that resulted in nine Nobel Prizes and such inventions as the laser and the Unix operating system. They found that star performers did not have higher IQs than their colleagues, but rather proactively developed more, and more diverse, relationships with other experts than average performers.
Writing in Harvard Business Review, Founder and President of venture investment firm Anthemis, Amy Nauiokas, points to current research that further supports the findings that, “people who are connected across heterogeneous groups and who have more diverse contacts come up with more creative ideas and original solutions.” She and others offer suggestions for shifting your attention from simply making connections, to building unique connections.
- Move beyond your comfort zone. Attend a meeting or conference in an industry other than your own, or reach out to people within your industry who work in different functional areas. You can also stretch yourself by trying something in your free time that you may not do well at, or where you are likely to meet people very different from yourself. Instead of another yoga class, try a shooting range. Attend an event for a political party other than your own. Seek out events (such as musical performances) with people of different ages. The point is to be in different physical and mental spaces to encounter people with different ideas and connections.
- Walk softly. Loose ties are something you grow over time and see where they take you. Focus more on the other person, asking open-ended questions to learn about them and their expertise. Remember, you’re not there to promote your agenda; you’re reaching out to learn something new and welcome new people into your life who are different from those currently closest to you. Don’t show up with a big ask.
- Be curious and open. When you adopt a sense of curiosity about others it opens you up to being pleasantly surprised, even by people you know reasonably well, but may have never listened to closely enough to learn about their unique interests or skills. It can also be especially mind- and network-expanding to engage deeply with people with whom you often disagree. People who see the world differently from you can likely tell you something new.
- Identify thought leaders and reach out. By thinking specifically about areas where you’d like to expand your knowledge and connections, you can identify people leading in and writing about those areas on platforms such as LinkedIn. Reach out with a short, specific request to connect and you stand a good chance of expanding your network.
- Develop a little thicker skin. Rejection can be part of network building, especially when you cast your net a little wider. Others may not see the value in sharing their time with you right away, or understand how your worlds might overlap. You can revisit how you reached out, the sorts of questions you asked and how you came across. But just go into network building knowing that not everyone has the time or interest to reciprocate. Take a deep breath and move on to the next person.
It may take a little more work to diversify your network, but the rewards in terms of novel insights and tangible benefits, such as leads on a new position or new client, will be well worth it.