Networking envy is ugly and real. How is it that you blow through two hours a day adding articles to LinkedIn and updating your Twitter feed, and you still haven’t reached those magic numbers: 500+ connections, 50K followers? A growing body of research on effective networking shows that rather than trying to outdo everyone else in engineering an enormous web of connections, you would be better off scaling down and redirecting your efforts. You’ll save yourself some time, too. In fact, studies show that today’s most successful business execs–the visionary crème de la crème–have a relatively small number of contacts compared to second-tier managers and below. They do not waste resources “friending” everyone who crosses their path. Instead, the most successful leaders build a small number of high-quality connections across a range of different groups, many completely unrelated to the industries they work in, and some not even related to work at all. The strength of this method is that it inspires new business ideas, underpins goal-setting, and ultimately makes for a sane work life.
Want to network like the business elite? Do these three things:
Seek Contacts, Everywhere
All too often, we keep our networks limited to people who are, well, pretty much like us. We are drawn to others in the same sector, the same country, and the same professional level. It makes us feel safe, even validated. Yet it also ends up making us really boring. Sure, it is nice to share work war stories with others who see the world through the same lens, but it also means our perspectives stay narrow. We end up recycling and reinforcing the same thoughts with like-minded people. The world’s highest performers on the other hand achieve super-stardom by introducing revolutionary ideas, ideas that often arise from their contact with individuals from very different walks of life.
Science tends to agree. Several years ago, University of Chicago professor Ron Burt studied the networking behavior of managers in Asia, Europe and North America. He discovered that the most successful 20 percent (as measured by promotions, pay and performance evaluations) had more open networks than the rest—they had connections across many clusters and acted as idea brokers among these diverse groups. This type of open networking seems to be one of the best predictors of career success.
Blake Mycoskie, Founder and CEO of Toms is one example of how this works in real life. He created the concept for the California-based company while on personal travel in Argentina, where he befriended a group of volunteers who were collecting shoes for disadvantaged children. The networking experience gave rise to a compelling, unique business idea: sell Argentinian-style shoes to U.S. consumers while donating one pair of shoes to charity for each pair sold. Steve Jobs is another shining example. It’s likely that none of us would have an iPhone weighing down our pocket if the Apple founder had not fostered a decades-long mentorship with his Zen Buddhist spiritual advisor. The religion’s underlying principles of simplicity, minimalism and power inspired Jobs’ core design philosophy that set the company’s products apart from everybody else’s.
Find Cheerleaders for Your Personal Goals
Other networking science experts found that the most successful executives have contacts in their core networks who help them on a personal rather than professional level. This makes sense since high-achieving professionals are usually happier ones. Smart networkers first seek out people who give them emotional support when they need to vent or get a reality check, such as a partner or a close friend. Then, they include network contacts who provide them with a sense of purpose or worth by validating their work and encouraging them see the bigger picture. Finally, the most successful leaders make sure to have close relationships with individuals who hold them accountable for sticking to their work/life balance goals—those important things you are supposed to do outside the office, like exercising, engaging in hobbies or doing volunteer work.
Think Quality over Quantity
The experts in the study cited above discovered that the 20 percent of the most successful people have a very small core network, only between 12 and 18 connections. These are the people they have the most contact with and rely on for help with decision making. And, typically, they are spread across a broad range of interest areas. Of course, these professionals at the top have plenty of other connections in their open network system too, but they know how to find valuable contacts without spreading themselves too thin. Make a list of your 20 most important professional and personal contacts and prioritize keeping in touch with them. Then map out your second and third tiers of connections and find easy ways to engage with them (aka social media) while not wasting more time than you need to.
Becoming a master networker starts with curiosity. It’s no accident that the most successful executives are often the most inquisitive. Curiosity leads them to make connections outside their normal professional spheres, and that is how beautiful business ideas start.
Kate Rodriguez is a freelance marketing copywriter based in Munich. She has over 20 years of professional experience in public and private organizations. A former international trade analyst for the U.S. government, she also worked as a university career coach, specializing in international career search. Most recently, she was employed at Experteer as a customer service agent and online marketing manager.