How leaders can develop and successfully use networking skills 

Five years after taking over as CEO of Apple, Tim Cook sat for a long, self-reflective interview with the Washington Post. In the free-ranging chat, Cook discussed how Apple had changed, or how little it had changed, at the beginning of his term at the top. 

Business leaders and managers worldwide were fascinated to hear about life at Apple after Steve Jobs. Perhaps the most frequently shared quote from that interview had to do with the need for networking. 

It’s sort of a lonely job. The adage that it’s lonely — the CEO job is lonely — is accurate in a lot of ways.

Tim Cook

Cook went on to talk about the importance of having bright people around you and in your orbit who will amplify what you’re good at and help you identify the parts that you’re not. 

Whether “people in your orbit” means workplace colleagues or contacts around the world, it’s all about making the most of your networking skills. While one goal may be to minimize business leaders’ loneliness, successful networking helps build connections that can help you keep your career on track for a lifetime. 

Leading from within your network

One of the most important and perhaps most difficult aspects of networking once you’ve landed near the top of your organization is to remember that you are just one of many people in the network and each has a role to play. Networking and participating in your network are essential for day-to-day connections as well as finding opportunities during leadership transitions.

Leaders working within an interconnected company or as part of a global business network must be comfortable as part of the team, not as its top dog. That takes networking.

Networking can sound pretty straightforward, like something we’ve been doing since making friends in the first weeks of school. But it becomes much more sophisticated in the workplace and requires skill. 

The most successful leaders make networking look easy, but leadership networking is a skill that can be learned and enhanced. 

3 types of networking for leaders

In Harvard Business Review’s ‘How Leaders Create and Use Networks,’ based on a study of 30 emerging leaders, the authors outline three distinct forms of networking, operational, personal and strategic. 

Operational Network: This involves people whose role is to fulfill current work tasks and responsibilities. These are daily contacts for routine activities. This network includes management, direct reports, superiors and key outsiders like vendors and customers. The purpose of this network is to get the work done efficiently. Not reaching beyond this network can trap a manager in technical and operational duties.  

Personal Network: These are like-minded people outside your own organization who can assist in personal development. You may have met them through mutual interests or organizations – but their business acumen can help you be successful. Personal networks take on the role of coaching and mentoring, often providing important referrals or resources. Thunderbird’s Global Network is a good example of a very helpful business relationship that began as a personal connection.

Strategic Network: Strategic networking is about enlisting the support of external contacts who can help you to achieve your strategic business goals. The key to a good strategic network is leverage: the ability to marshal information, support, and utilize resources from one sector of a network to achieve results in another. A well-tuned strategic network helps leaders realize benefits in their existing roles beyond what they can achieve with their operational network. 

Although active networking in all three areas is important, strategic networking is the most important form for a global leader. Remember that it is part of a leader’s job to network or build social capital as part of marshalling resources and achieving organizational goals.

Whom you know rather than what you know

You can’t spell networking without the word ‘work.’ Many respondents in the Harvard study reported believing that networking and monitoring your network feels like an added chore to an already very busy career. Others found it difficult to bond with people in their networks who were not in the same industry. 

Some leaders found success when they added nuance to the networking relationship, finding common ground beyond work. Others created common ground by inviting clients and colleagues to social networking events, theater, music or volunteer opportunities. 

It’s important to take the time to cultivate both in-person relationships and online networks. With more than 750 million users, LinkedIn can be a helpful business networking tool. You can learn more about people in your network, and they can find out more about you on LinkedIn, but you must put in the effort and share resources and thoughtful opinions. 

Beyond LinkedIn, there are many other ways to connect in online forums, but there’s no substitute for the richness that comes with meeting and developing relationships in person. Take the time to add to your existing network at face-to-face events both within your industry and others, and follow up. Once you’ve made initial contacts, keeping them alive is essential.

Networking for finding jobs or new employees

Leadership networking is a powerful tool to help you meet your current organization’s goals. Successful networking can also help with transitions, including finding new jobs or finding new employees. Whatever the short-term goal, it is important to take a long view of how networking, building career-related connections can benefit a business leader over time.  You never know when an opportunity will arise, and it is important that members of your network are aware of how you may be able to help them.

The Center for Creative Leadership guidebook outlines six network management rules for effective leadership networking: 

  1. Be sincere: Networking isn’t just about what you get from it. If you earn a reputation as someone who doesn’t share, misuses information or breaks confidences, then your networks may not want to collaborate.
  2. Share resources: Having resources such as information, services and access will build your leadership network through give-and-take. Reciprocity is important. 
  3. Use power thoughtfully: Power is the ability to get things done. You’ll need three sources of power to build your network: your reputation, alliances and occupation. Be the leader who gets results, can be held accountable and has connections with key influencers or decision-makers. 
  4. Communicate skillfully: Communicate with people in your network in a way that leaves them aware of your needs and your assets. Active listening is important. When you listen well, you gain a clear understanding of another’s perspective and knowledge. And you also gain insight into what messages they are getting from you.
  5. Negotiate effectively: Effective negotiators know when to push hard and when to back off; when to share information and when to hold back; when to swap resources, and when to trade short-term outcomes for a long-term goal. 
  6. Learn to manage conflict: When conflict occurs within your network, take time to appreciate opposing views. Look for points of mutual agreement and benefit. Express your position in a way that’s helpful to resolving the conflict.

A strong leadership network will serve you and your organization well, but it also extends beyond the job. If you have a great reputation within your network, you have the advantage of having a solid group of contacts who can be resources whether you start a job search for yourself or are looking to add talent to your team. 

Networking: better business, better world 

Once you have formally established a professional network, it’s time to think about what you’d really like to do with it. Building a quality network goes beyond having a good address book. As your network gels, you will find that it elevates your career and that of like-minded professionals around the world. 

The security of a good network is knowing that a contact will take your call, has time for a conversation, can make an introduction or provide you with valuable advice. They will do this because they believe in you and because you have built interpersonal relationships with your contacts.

As you build your network, think about the areas you need to work on and who might help you work on them. Look for contacts who will keep you honest about your strengths and weaknesses. 

Reach out to outliers, those who may help you see where you, your company and your industry are headed. And reassess key members of your network periodically to make sure you are exposing yourself to a diverse, inclusive set of experts in your field and others. An interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary approach to networking will open new doors and opportunities if that’s what you are looking for. 

Thunderbird’s global network 

At Thunderbird, students are welcomed into an alumni community over 50,000 strong that promises to be a lifeline, no matter where they are in the world. All alumni are encouraged to stay connected to Thunderbird through a vast network of alumni chapters around the world. Alumni are also encouraged to hire a graduate or refer a prospective student. For more information about the Thunderbird network and alumni events, please visit our website.

Whether you are a business leader or moving up the ranks, it’s important to have people around you who you know are on your side. There is no reason to be lonely, when there are many resources and tools to help build your networking skills and network. 

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