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How to build and leverage networks

In many corporate scenarios, what looks good on paper doesn’t always translate into business growth. Take a quick glance at the latest headlines and you’ll find shaky M&As, corporate collapses and organizations falling short of the mark because they undervalued the core driver of business performance: their people.

Truth be told, much of the work in global firms gets done on the sidelines of organizational charts, through informal connections that cut across functions, divisions and regions. These highly adaptive informal networks solidify over time and can enable – or undercut – change initiatives and corporate strategies.

For global leaders, leveraging these social networks and pockets of influence is critical to successfully execute corporate strategies, yet this is easier said than done. According to the celebrated HBR article “Informal Networks: The Company Behind the Chart“, managers typically overestimate how well they understand the inner workings of these networks:

“Managers often pride themselves on understanding how these networks operate. What’s startling is how often they are wrong. Although they may be able to diagram accurately the social links of the five or six people closest to them, their assumptions about employees outside their immediate circle are usually off the mark.”

By analyzing their firm’s informal structures and mapping out its political terrain, senior executives can gain a better grasp of these all-important social systems and capitalize on them to address organizational issues and boost corporate outcomes.

6 keys to successful networks for executives

Networks are critical on an organizational level to push forward corporate initiatives, but they are also essential for employees. “Networking is one of the top predictors of leadership success and as managers advance in their careers, its importance only grows over time,” says Prof. Fabrizio Ferraro of IESE’s Department of Strategic Management. “To harness its benefits, we have think beyond those closest to us and build a strategic network of connections that will promote and accelerate our objectives.”

To this end, Prof. Ferraro highlights six guideposts to create a successful networks:

1. Accept networking as part of the job

Your reputation and the strength of your network are as important as your individual performance. People who know and trust you are vital to building your career and power plays are a corporate reality, so take steps to actively build your network.

2. Start early

Just like friendships, establishing a strong network doesn’t happen overnight. Dedicate time to grow your network before you need it since it’s one investment that pays compound interest over time.

3. The importance of give and take

Giving and taking are building blocks of social relationships so start by helping others rather than asking for help. At the same time, stay attuned to lopsided “taker” relationships and consider weeding them out.

4. Diversity is the name of the game

We naturally gravitate toward people who are like us, yet this tendency can foster tunnel vision and undermine the value of our network. Top-performing executives have diverse but very select networks of relationships from different spheres and across the corporate hierarchy.

5. Cross-fertilize your network

Our networks include personal, operational and strategic relationships but these spheres can easily overlap. Maybe Uncle Joe would be an excellent career mentor! Map your network and leverage contacts from one realm to another.

6. Be social for the sake of sociability

Networking should transcend purely utilitarian aims. Your efforts will fall short if you aim to “build a network” through a rapid-fire exchange of business cards or reach that magical “500+ contacts” on LinkedIn. When it comes to building a network, it’s key to enjoy people and have fun along the way.

Managers should take great care of their professional networks, and this is a skill highly developed on every IESE executive education programs.

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