Building and nurturing a strong network of contacts is increasingly a key skill for today’s CEOs and non-executive directors. Learning from those outside of your normal circle of business interaction can inform and enlighten your ability to tackle the challenges faced in an organisation, and develop and sharpen your own personal leadership skills.
In the current business environment, it is no longer enough to network with other executives in the same industry as you. The challenges that face you at the top of the tree require access to cross-sector, cross-region and cross-functional information, because you never know from which source a solution may spring. A platform to ask questions and talk to other leaders is crucial.
Susan Pointer, Director of Public Policy & Government Relations EMEA at Google, says: “For me, networking is about consciously taking the time to listen to the views of others, to test, scrutinise and then either add rigour to your own views or adapt them based on new knowledge or insight gained.”
Leap of faith
In their article Leveraging Your Links, INSEAD professors Herminia Ibarra and Mark Hunter define three distinct categories of networking, each of which has a role to play at different stages of the leadership transition: operational, personal and strategic.
While the ‘operational’ represents the essential connections leaders need to perform functional tasks in their day job, personal networks provide the platform for individual development, allowing leaders to acquire the necessary skills, experience and contacts to build and leverage their personal brand.
David Kneeshaw, Chief Executive of international fund managers, Royal London 360°, agrees: “Personal networking is as much about enjoying the environment as it is about pursuing an objective. Simply being away from the desk, with its attendant minutiae and narrow urgent focus, creates a more open space in which to talk and share ideas. The result is a sense of perspective and rejuvenation of the mind. Networking should be about giving and enjoying, not just taking, to be a worthwhile experience.”
Strategic or business networks tend to require engaging and interacting with leaders from different walks of life, sometimes industries that might seem entirely leftfield, in order to find innovative ideas that can be invested back into their business. Initially, the crossover of each can sit awkwardly for some leaders.
Ian Bowles, CEO of AIM-listed Allocate Software plc, says: “I used to be in the camp which believes that personal lives and business lives should be kept very separate and I confess to not being very good at building networks. I have seen it for too long as something that other, higher profile leaders did, and felt that I was simply too busy. I now realise that networking is not necessarily about someone looking for something, which has challenged my previous perspective, and I see the increasing need, importance and power of leveraging networks.”
It’s no secret that networking necessitates stepping outside one’s comfort zone and into the unknown. In many cases, this may require a wholesale re-evaluation of one’s outlook towards networking.
Niall Trafford, COO and Director of Sustainable Development at the built environment experts, BRE Group, says: “A network necessarily must extend outside the familiar boundaries of your own organisation no matter how big. It takes work, time and a degree of determination operating sometimes outside of one’s own comfort zone. Getting back what you put in is not always in equal measure nor should you expect it to be. In time, the experience becomes natural and pleasurable as you learn new things from wide ranging experience and skills. Expect the unexpected and have fun.”
Practice makes perfect
Many executives perceive networking as too much hard work, often with very little immediate or tangible payback, yet it is a developed skill that requires a lot of practice.
Chris Merry, former CEO of investment banking group, Matrix, says: “The notion that networking isn’t work is often a hard one to grapple with and therefore there’s often a sense of guilt about doing it during working hours. You have to work at building and constantly managing your networks. And you can't just switch it on when there is a crisis. It’s one of those things that you don't know is important until it IS important.”
With busy schedules, it is all too easy to stay within self-reinforcing circles. The challenge, and the opportunity, is in taking the time to reach over to and participate in new circles.
Susan says: “This broadens the mind and in turn leads to better informed decision-making. Often, too, it creates unexpected alliances and new constructive approaches to addressing an existing challenge built on incorporating the expertise of wider disciplines and experience.”
Bob Emmins, Group Finance Director of ABF Ingredients, a division of Associated British Foods, says: “Until about five years ago I always looked for the payback from networking. I’ve learned that the trick is not to expect a benefit. If you go in with an open mind you will usually come away with some interesting insights. When something doesn’t come naturally, it is useful to have regular ‘reminders’ of what one ought to be doing. Increasingly one often finds one’s own behaviour changes and what was outside one’s comfort zone starts to move within. For me, networking is one such area.”
At its heart, networking is about forming business relationships that will stand the test of time. Of course, executives don’t invest time and energy into networking without the expectation that they will get something back. But relationship building is a long-term investment.
Steve Richards, Chairman of private equity-backed online personalised gift service, Gettingpersonal.co.uk, says: “A career as a non-executive, for example, is very much a long-term project, and you’ll need to invest time in it. Some opportunities take years to come to fruition. Extending your pipeline will require some aggressive networking, rubbing shoulders with contacts through services afforded by the likes of Criticaleye. Only now am I starting to realise the benefits.”
Chris says: “As a CEO, you realise quite quickly the importance of your network, particularly when you consider you’ll only be in your current role for three to five years. If you have worked hard at it, networking really pays off after the age of about 40 as that is when you’ll begin to see the fruits of those relationships you have cultivated. Your network can help to shape your career, so the earlier you start to build it and engage with it, the more useful it may prove in the long run.”
Based on conversations with our Community of Members, Criticaleye outlines the following as crucial steps on the path to building a powerful business and personal network:
- Forget the ‘what’s in it for me’ mentality: the most valuable contacts are those where the relationship is mutually beneficial
- Be real: insincerity is obvious and ugly, so be yourself and talk about what you are passionate about
- Look for opportunities: you can make contacts everywhere, so don’t underestimate the value of a chance meeting
- Marketing opportunity: strong relationships will create loyal, long-term customers
- Practice: honing your relationship building skills is crucial and there are always opportunities to practice
- Support: you will be able to call upon strong relationships during good times and bad
Fundamentally, leaders don’t know what they don’t know. Only those with strong and trusted relationships will have access to the information they need to be successful. The most effective c-suite executives have exceptional networking and relationship-forming abilities and can call on the right people for advice at a time when it is needed.
Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, says: “Building networks, especially those outside your organisation, is increasingly a key leadership skill. A good networker juggles a diverse range of knowledge flows and the value lies in building reciprocal relationships that enhance this flow.”
The business world today is more and more about making links, collaborating and sharing insights to move your business forward. At Criticaleye, we strive to create the channel that will enable this process to happen, providing a genuine way for senior executives to link into the latest business insights in a friendly but structured environment.
Please get in touch if you have any comments about the issues raised here.
I hope to see you soon