Networking For Leaders

networking, leadersIn 2007, Herminia Ibarra and Mark Lee Hunter, professors at INSEAD, published an article in Harvard Business Review entitled “How Leaders Create and Use Networks”; ten years later, the concepts they described are just as relevant for leadership success.

The authors define networking as “creating a fabric of personal contacts who will provide support, feedback, insight, resources, and information.”  They acknowledge that individuals who are transitioning into leadership roles generally dislike networking, considering it manipulative or distracting, or simply very different from the technical skill and singular focus through which they are used to achieving success; however, they also propose that networking is essential to leadership success.

The article describes three different forms of networking – operational, personal, and strategic – none of which simply refer to the number of names in one’s database or the caliber of conferences one attends.

Operational networking describes relationships that are formed for the sole purpose of accomplishing tasks within one’s own organization.  Most members of these networks are internal (e.g. direct reports, supervisors, cross-departmental peers), but they can also include outside vendors, customers, etc. These cooperative relationships are functional, rather than strategic and future-facing – their value does not extend beyond the specific task at hand.  There is also very little personal choice involved in forging the relationships, as a person is either necessary to the job or not.  Despite their somewhat limited usefulness, these are the most common networks managers create.

The next level of complexity is personal networking, which involves “seeking kindred spirits” outside one’s own organization, such as can be found through professional associations, clubs, and alumni groups.  These relationships serve to provide referrals, information, mentoring, and personal development opportunities.  The members of these networks all have something in common, and represent a “safe space.”  These networks serve as a long chain to allow a leader to reach someone valuable to them through various intersecting connections; it is important to know how to use these personal connections to impact one’s own organizational strategy, though.

Perhaps the most important, but the least utilized, form of networking is strategic networking.  This necessitates that a leader get out of his or her own functional area to create a successful future plan, building relationships with other managers in other domains.  These relationships have business objectives, rather than functional objectives – they give leaders the power to achieve their personal and operational goals, help them sell ideas and compete for resources, and allow them to anticipate and respond to future changes in the business.  The ways in which these relationships are enacted include:  “recruiting stakeholders, lining up allies and sympathizers, diagnosing the political landscape, brokering conversations among unconnected parties, moving and hiring subordinates, changing suppliers and sources of financing, lobbying to place allies in peer positions, and restructuring boards to create networks favorable to business goals.”  Leaders who engage in strategic networking are able to apply leverage in using the resources from a different area to make progress in their own, and to use people in their own network to get at others outside of it.

All three forms of networking can function in tandem; for example, a personal network can become operationally and strategically important when the people with which one has something personal in common also have something of value to add to one’s work.  Even vastly different industries all deal with issues such as customer service, and these different industries might offer a unique perspective.  The key is to be able to leverage the strengths of each of the three networks into one another.  It can be challenging to make the first connection, but using an “outside-in” approach allows a leader to employ their personal interests for strategic purposes (e.g. inviting clients to the theater) or to make use of their functional interests (e.g. through communities of practice providing information that helps them connect with others inside their own organization).

The authors suggest that leaders must change their attitudes about the importance of networking.  Networking’s payoff may seem ambiguous and delayed compared to completing the functional tasks at hand; however, networks will only be successful if they are consistently used – both put into and taken out of.  This may mean that a leader has to also develop the skill of delegation, passing on more functional responsibilities to free up time to build important relationships.  The authors recommend networking “role models” who do it well and can demonstrate its importance.

Successful networking is not a “talent,” but something that takes practice.  It necessitates going outside one’s comfort zone and making a long-term commitment to the process.  As an executive search firm, Quick Leonard Kieffer values networking both for its benefit to clients, as well as to candidates.


Contributed by: Holly Valovick – QLK