Networks of Successful People

“Networks matter here more than anywhere else I have ever been,” I was proudly told by the president of one of the world’s most beloved consumer-products organizations. “If you’re an employee and you don’t figure this out, it just doesn’t matter how smart you are or what you have done before.”

As a network researcher, I was excited to hear those words. An understanding of networks, I knew, was the key to understanding effective collaboration, as we will see in this half of the book. Had I found a like-minded colleague, someone with influence who was ready to put network ideas into play for a massive organization?

“Great!” I replied. “What kinds of things do you do to help people cultivate the right connections?”

“From day one, we encourage people to learn the culture,” the executive said. “Leaders come in to speak to each incoming class. We make clear the importance of building a big network. And we hold a series of social events so the newcomers can mingle and meet their new peers. We also encourage everyone to join associations and be involved with their community.”

I kept smiling, but my inner voice kicked in (I have learned, over the years, to hold it at bay): This has nothing to do with helping people understand and replicate what high performers do through networks. This is just shooting blindly—telling people something is critical and then saying, “Good luck storming the castle.”

This was yet another company that failed to understand how successful people build and tap personal networks. Just the week before, I had heard the same story at a global insurance organization. A couple of weeks before that, at a leading software organization. Before that, at a highly respected professional-services organization. In fact, I have this same conversation thirty or more times a year. Leaders say they recognize that networks are critical to success, but they do nothing to help clarify what a good network looks like or how successful people create their network connections.

This lack of helpful specificity is not just the domain of organizations. Look at today’s social technologies and online platforms: They offer rapid means to connect and collaborate with a dizzying array of people, but what does good networking look like?

What do high performers do? What network strategies distinguish the people who stay for years in their jobs from those who run into trouble and leave early? What aspects of connectivity distinguish those who are happy and sustainable in their careers?

Network Diversity

The starting point for answering these questions is the pioneering work of Ron Burt, who showed that people with noninsular networks—those that encompass a diversity of perspectives, values, and expertise—are more successful.1 These structurally diverse networks often bridge expertise domains, cultures, geographical regions, functional areas, and other pockets of mastery and opinion. Interactions with people who are in different clusters of a network enable us to see problems and opportunities in novel ways.

Burt’s work showed that people who build these kinds of networks are promoted more rapidly. Other researchers have shown that noninsular networks are associated with higher pay and greater career mobility. My own work in the Connected Commons across several hundred organizations has consistently found that noninsular networks predict higher individual performance.

Visually, the idea can be portrayed through playing the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and comparing Bacon with an actor such as Jim Carrey (see figure 6-1). Bacon turns out to be a well-connected actor in the movie universe not so much because of the number of films he has been in as the number of genres. Whereas Carrey and most other actors stay within one or two genres, Bacon has appeared in many more, and it is the bridging ties across genres—or clusters in the network—that make him central in the movie universe.


Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon

Noninsular versus insular networks


Source: Thanks to Wayne Baker for the discussion that led to this graphic.

I am not saying Bacon is a good or bad actor—you can make your own call on his cinematic prowess. Rather, the point is that people in companies who maintain a structurally diverse network like Bacon’s tend to be more successful.

In contrast, when I reference an insular network, I mean one more like Carrey’s, where the people connected to him are also heavily connected to each other. Of course, the pattern in real life is never perfect like the graphic, but as leaders evolve, if they allow their meetings, email distribution lists, and workflows to excessively involve the same people over and over, they tend to become insular and less innovative in their work.

The finding that a structurally diverse network is key to personal performance is one of the foundational discoveries in social-network research. Many other researchers, such as Wayne Baker, Herminia Ibarra, and Linda Hill, have shed further light on network structure and helped all of us see how knowledge work is enhanced by structurally diverse networks.

Despite clear evidence that diverse networks work, people struggle to figure out how to build them. Leaders ask: Should you continually network with people outside your circle? Do certain relationships matter more than others? Probably the most common questions I get about this are: Does it really make sense to spend time building a structurally diverse network? Doesn’t the specific work I’m doing determine which people I need to interact with?

To begin providing real answers, I conducted two interview studies with 260 women and men. My approach was to assess successful people—people who are consistently high performers and who score higher on measures of thriving, resilience, career satisfaction, or well-being. I wanted to see what these people did through networks to perform well and be sustainable in their careers.

The process of conducting these interviews was very illuminating in itself.

Seeing the Invisible Social Ecology of High Performers

First, I would usually need a few tries to get each interviewee on the phone. I came to expect that five minutes before the allotted time, I would get an email from the interviewee’s assistant saying there had been a dire emergency and asking if it would be possible to postpone. (It was amazing how many dire emergencies came up in the lives of these individuals—sick children, dental crises, deaths in the family. Definitely a statistical anomaly. I’m pretty sure some of the deaths happened more than once.)

I wasn’t surprised. These were high performers, and the call with the academic was clearly their lowest priority. Ultimately, I wore them down with my persistence and finally would get them on the phone. I would tell them that I was interested in hearing about their career-defining successes, the times when they accomplished things that put them on their current paths. Then I added, “But what I want to talk about is not what you did individually. What I want you to reflect on is how your network enabled you to see the opportunities to organize and pursue the initiatives and to implement them efficiently.”

The response was almost always: “Great! I have a good one for you.” The person would be off to the races, but not in the way I hoped. Instead, they’d tell me a story that had nothing to do with other people. It was entirely their own valiant efforts that made things happen. If others were involved, they usually served as obstacles for our hero to overcome.

Because many of the interviewees were high-level executives, it would take me a while to be able to step in. At about the five-minute mark, I would ask, “Why this thing? Of all the things that you could have spent time on at this point in your life, why this?”

“Oh,” the person would say. And after a moment’s reflection: “It started with an interaction with ________” and the interviewee would name a person in his or her network. “And then ________” (another person). “And then ________.” “And later ________.” Eventually, the interviewee would acknowledge that what had really mattered was the integration of the interactions with all these people.

Before the interviewee could build up a new head of steam on the solo narrative, I would say, “Well, this took you into new areas, right? Exposed gaps for you in technical, market, political, or cultural domains, right? What did you do in those domains?”

“Oh.” Another pause. “I talked to ________” (another person). “And ________.” And ________.”

“Huh,” I would say. “Tell me, did you have any moments where you had to pivot? And did still others play important roles in that?”

“Oh yeah. This happened at two key points …”

And on it would go as we explored the person’s success not as a product of their individual efforts but as a product of the network. (See the Coaching Break, “Recognizing Your Own Social Ecology.”)


Recognizing Your Own Social Ecology

Think about one of your successful projects and list key moments in which you took action to drive that success. That’s step one.

Then, on a blank piece of paper, draw a horizontal line to represent the project’s timeline, left to right.

On the far left, above the line, list a person or multiple people who helped you see the possibilities in this project. Below that, list people who were critical sources of expertise or resources in the project’s inception.

At the midpoint, above the line, list people who helped you understand how to position your ideas, how to influence others, or how to obtain resources or approvals. Below that, list people who entered midstream and changed your perspective on the project or whom you relied on to cover skill or expertise gaps.

On the far right, above the line, list people who helped you pivot or adapt when a challenge arose or the project direction shifted. Below that, list anyone who gave you personal support during the project, such as letting you vent or discuss problems in ways that helped you get back on track.

Finally, review the entire timeline and consider one or more points where serendipity played a role—where you ran into someone unexpectedly and it ended up helping the project in one way or another.

Now go back and look at the list of your own actions that you wrote at the beginning of this exercise and compare that with the rich ecosystem you have just sketched out. Telling your story from the network vantage point requires a shift in perception; it’s like in physics, where a packet of energy can be seen as either a particle or a wave.

Notice the variety of connections across your timeline. Often, different ties matter at different points in a project’s life. The development and leverage of these connections distinguish the top performers. Use this timeline to see where gaps could be filled in future efforts.

Recognizing your own social ecology


The interviewees didn’t resist the recasting of their stories at all. To the contrary, they were often very thoughtful and forthcoming once I had prompted them a couple of times. In fact, around 75 percent of the calls ended up going long, as the interviewees valued the experience of reexamining their successes in this new light. What had been a five-minute account of a supposedly single-handed success became a much longer tale involving a rich social ecology. (Now it was the next people on their schedule, the people after me, who got the excuses about the sick children, dental crises, and extended family member passing away.)

When I tell this story, I am sometimes asked why it took all that prompting to get the interviewees to recognize the social ecologies critical to their achievements. Are successful people arrogant? I don’t think so. Rather, I think everyone is just limited cognitively. If we can’t remember a phone number for twenty seconds, how can we be expected to recall all the interactions we experience over the life of a long project?

This is a critical point. Network interactions that enable career-defining successes are in a sense invisible to us. Cognitively we put ourselves in the center of our success narratives and recall more easily the actions we took and less fluidly the ways relationships shaped our success. In fact, we are psychologically wired to attribute successes to our own behaviors, and failures to others’ actions. As a result, we learn to re-apply behaviors that we think make us successful but do not consciously learn and recreate the network interactions that also play a critical role.

Like the air we breathe, these connections are essential but in important ways unseen.

The Wisdom of the Trenches

The upshot of the interviews was understanding that advice on networking well is sorely lacking. Traditional guidance too often centers on how to use connections to find a job, get venture funding, or sell a product or service. All of that is important, to be sure. But the kind of networking that generates a large volume of surface-level interactions so you can get a job, or hustle up funds or prospects, is not reflective of the ways more-successful people in my research initiated and leveraged networks to deliver career-defining accomplishments.

In particular, the quantitative research from the Connected Commons shows that if you want to be successful, a bigger network is typically not better. This is a striking finding, especially given the number of companies that take pride in encouraging their employees to build large networks and the number of self-help books on networking that start with the central premise that a big network is a good one.

True, in transactional fields such as residential real estate, network size does make a difference. But, generally, it is not the critical factor distinguishing satisfied, thriving high performers from other people in their organizations. Managing a big, sprawling network is time consuming, and that time sink can actually end up generating collaboration overload and hurting performance.

Another surprising discovery was that very few of the successful people I studied followed the classic advice to intentionally create structurally diverse networks. Despite the demonstrated links between network diversity and achievement, there just wasn’t a lot of proactive development of these networks by, for example, stocking networks with assets such as brokers who can link to disparate groups. But these people did create network diversity in very interesting ways across planning horizons and work demands.

The reality in organizations, I found, is that successful people do network—constantly—but not “by the book.” They network intuitively, reflexively, and in unique ways that respond to immediate opportunities, while also cultivating connections over the long term that create future possibilities.

They know they need specific kinds of interactions that will ensure the quality of their solutions and the efficiency of implementation, and they know they need to capitalize rapidly on short-term opportunities, while also sculpting future possibilities through specific kinds of network initiation and development.

So, they make a leap of faith, letting go of control, embracing ambiguity, and reaching out early—actions that may at times expose them to ridicule but that lead to the development of diverse networks, which in turn create the conditions for outstanding success.

This is what you might call the wisdom of the trenches—the tacit, experiential knowledge that successful people generate by using networks to get their work done. The interviewees learned to take steps that were risky, time consuming, and sometimes selfless, to generate outsized results. They figured this out largely on their own, rarely with specific guidance from their organizations.

That doesn’t mean you have to figure it out on your own, of course. You can take the knowledge of what they did and apply it to your own life.

Medium-Horizon Networks for Execution and Efficiency

Successful people take a nuanced approach to networks that depends on the work’s time horizon. For many, the most natural place to start building an effective network is with medium-horizon projects—those career-defining (or at least career-enhancing) initiatives that are happening now and are expected to unfold over the next few months or so.

Most of us have at least one and usually three or four core, medium-horizon projects or strategic objectives that are critical to our future success. Examples might include a restructuring project for a consulting client, moving a new product through a development process, or generating software that extends functionality for a given code base. It is important to define these efforts and make sure they are truly core; there should be no more than three or four core priorities. The scope, objective, and time frame of these initiatives should also have become relatively firm and stable.

These medium-horizon work streams dictate what kinds of connections are critical for effective and efficient delivery of results. Medium-horizon network investments around one or more core projects or priorities are critical to successful people’s ability to scale their work and implement it efficiently. By cultivating the right set of connections proactively for medium-horizon work, successful individuals are far less likely to hit points of resistance that derail their efforts.

The investments pay off tremendously in producing results that are larger than any one person’s individual capacity. And they further build a network of trust and reputation for delivery that pays dividends in future efforts.

In my research, the medium-horizon work of the interviewees proved to be a showcase for how successful people craft their networks. They do this along four critical fronts:

  • They cultivate connections to break out of narrow ideas.
  • They envision projects as sets of activities for a network, rather than as linear lists of tasks.
  • They use their networks to fill their knowledge gaps.
  • And they connect with influencers (including resisters) to gain perspective and efficiency.

So let’s look in detail at this medium-horizon work.

Cultivating connections to break out of narrow ideas

I have explored more than 250 career-defining accomplishments in great detail, and in every single one, the successful men and women experienced critical pivot moments that happened because of contributions from their networks. Every single one. In contrast, when sufficient interview time allowed—and people were comfortable sharing stories of failures—the interviewees often pointed to network insularity and developing solutions in isolation as keys to failure. This is natural. As work streams become established, we begin working to specific time frames and cadences with other people, and this can create insular informational environments that generate only narrow, familiar ideas. (See the Coaching Break, “Hearing Crickets.”)


Hearing Crickets

It’s crucial to adapt our networks to yield the best outcome and not fall into comfortable or convenient patterns of interacting with people we trust or like or who are easily accessible to us.

Consider Cristal, an engineering graduate of a leading university with over a decade of success in a well-regarded organization. As a rising star, Cristal was tapped by her CEO to lead the commercialization of a product she had helped create. All conditions pointed to success on program launch—top talent was placed on the project, executive support was strong, and funding was established. But nine months later, she was looking for a new job, because nothing was going as expected. There was poor coordination among the three work streams in the sixty-four-person part-time team—sales and marketing, product development, and research—and the team wasn’t hitting its deadlines.

Cristal’s impression was that the sales and marketing and product-development people weren’t making enough time for the project. “They slow the work and hurt the morale of others who are putting in the time,” she said. The sales and product development people also seemed uninterested in the research group’s ideas. “We would present really well-thought-out actions and get pushback or just crickets.”

People on the team said that even though the project was explicitly a commercialization effort, Cristal overemphasized research at the expense of the other functions. They weren’t wrong: my network analysis showed that she interacted mainly with research-oriented people—colleagues she knew and trusted and with whom she shared values and perspectives—while having only the most superficial interactions with people in sales and product development. The numbers were stark: the network of people she regularly spoke with included seventeen from research, two from sales, and five from product development, of whom two were included only because they sought her out. Some 73 percent of her interactions were with people in research.

As Cristal and I looked over the numbers, it became evident to her that her close ties to her research colleagues and friends—her community—had skewed her perspective, leading her to think about the project mainly along research lines. She recognized that she had fallen victim to the derailer of being a biased learner (see the introduction to part 2). She had held on to comfortable, trusted, validating relationships at the expense of a broader perspective. Unfortunately, she discovered this so late in the game that there was no way to undo the damage.

Reflect for a moment on disproportionately influential spheres in your own network—perhaps people you trust, are proximate to, or who share similar expertise. Of course, you do not want to drop these people from your network, but you do want to balance their influence by recognizing this reliance and cultivating new connections into spheres that will help you have a more accurate perspective.

Leaders typically have been advised on many, many decision-making biases that exist in the six inches between our ears. But oddly enough, we all still fall prey to phenomenal biases in how the information enters our brain to begin with through our networks.

The more-successful women and men in my research used their networks to puncture this idea bubble. How? They proactively initiated contact with people who could help them with their evolving projects or strategic priorities. These included technical experts who could help reframe and improve a solution’s efficiency, as well as other knowledgeable people who could help validate the effectiveness of the work. In many cases, the high performers systematically reached out to downstream customers of their solutions to get valuable user feedback. Rather than charge ahead with a plan that their teams felt good about, they were much more likely to identify components of their solutions that might be less than ideal and proactively engage their network to enhance solutions.

They also built serendipity into their lives to help surface possibilities that they would not have known to seek out. You can’t effectively break out of narrow ideas simply by reaching out on your own; you are held back by the limits of your knowledge and the span of your network. You need to invite and embrace serendipity.

In telling their stories, many of the interviewees at first unconsciously skipped over the serendipitous occurrences that had influenced their performance. It took a few questions to get people to recall these instances, but it turned out there were plenty of them. In fact, I was floored by how often serendipitous moments impacted the trajectory of career-defining successes.

The interviews revealed that serendipitous events make up a larger part of our success than most of us realize, and that the most-successful people benefit greatly from them. Serendipity is partly a matter of luck, but the most-accomplished people have a knack for generating serendipity.

In the interviews, I would ask, “Do you manufacture serendipity?” The idea may seem like an oxymoron, but over and over, people said yes. You can’t force fortuitous discoveries (they would tell me), but you can systematically pursue serendipity by creating routines for exploring ideas across the network and using serendipitous moments well. (See the Coaching Break, “Making Serendipity Happen.”)


Making Serendipity Happen

Chance is chance and luck is luck, but you can take steps to commingle people and ideas with the aim of stimulating serendipitous occurrences. All it requires is an openness to unforeseen directions and a few systematic behaviors. Interviewees told me they created routines for exploring ideas across the network and using serendipitous moments well.

Some of the practices include:

  • Walking to the office or going out for lunch or coffee by a different route as often as possible, just for a change of scenery
  • While walking to lunch or coffee with colleagues, stealing five minutes of their time to shoot the breeze or discuss new ideas
  • Setting aside time each week to meet one or two new colleagues or have exploratory conversations with people
  • Telling people about an idea or a problem you are trying to solve—asking how they would tackle it or who they would bring in to help
  • Using networking tools to prompt new thinking—for example, reviewing LinkedIn for updates on contacts’ interests and roles and searching for past contacts that could be rejuvenated for new purposes
  • Volunteering for activities or events that bring you into contact with new people, such as giving tours or participating in onboarding programs

Envisioning projects as sets of activities for a network

High performers see the network as a fluid extension of their own expertise, and they see the network as magnifying what they can do. The key is to envision projects and opportunities as sets of activities for a network, not as linear lists of tasks for you to accomplish. Most successful people described key inflection points in their careers where they ceased to see work as streams of activities that they needed to accomplish and stopped trying to fit tasks into existing roles, teams, or processes. Instead, they began to envision how tasks could be mapped onto capabilities in their networks. In turn, this enabled them to see possibilities to leverage talent broadly.

I am aware that this is a subtle point. In fact, it took me a while to identify this as one of the main ways people succeed through networks. I kept getting hints of it, but after a while, a few of the interviewees crystallized it for me.

One was a manager I’ll call Margaux, who has PhD and MBA degrees and has sculpted a role in a global pharma company taking ideas and processes that work in one area and adapting and scaling them for other areas. It’s smart that the company has someone doing that kind of work, right? And Margaux, who has a wide-ranging mind and loves crossing business and research boundaries, does it very well.

Margaux showed me how she thinks and works. One day she was learning about people working on an experimental mass-spectrometry blood test for early-stage Alzheimer’s disease and had the sudden insight that this relatively inexpensive and noninvasive technology might be useful in other parts of the company.

In order to see where it might apply, she needed to better understand the kinds of problems that other areas of the company were facing. Rather than view this as a challenge for just herself or her team, she dealt with it as a network challenge. She tapped a range of people with relevant knowledge.

“It’s important to be able to identify how your local space might have tie-ins with other parts of the organization,” she said. “I try to hop across networks to get to other areas, other expertise. Each person is a conduit to see how much further we can go to have a broader discussion.”

One research group expressed interest, but the technology turned out not to map well to the group’s work. “The initial conversation was along the lines of ‘While this tool is a good start, it doesn’t really address all our needs,’” Margaux said. “But then we had a conversation about which other groups might have needs that would be met by the test. We brainstormed who else we could reach out to.”

The “aha” moment came when a group working on the metabolic disease amyloidosis expressed interest because the test screened for amyloid protein, which plays a role in amyloidosis. Margaux’s MO is to see where opportunities exist and to view possibilities or projects as elements or pieces to be mapped onto various people. Using this network, she tries to understand the problem and potential solutions. Then she’ll work with an initial group to get their framing of the problem space and branch out to find other potential players or stakeholders.

Do you see what I mean about the wisdom of the trenches? Margaux doesn’t think about network structure per se. She doesn’t focus on a taxonomy of roles. And she doesn’t think of her network as permanent and unchanging. Instead, she networks in relation to her specific work. The work itself dictates key network connections. Margaux thinks about the work and who could inform it, lift it, support it, and extend it. Then she goes to those people and develops connections based on shared interests. Understanding that this is a human community, she lets her feelings of appreciation, admiration, gratitude, and liking shine through.

Of course, Margaux can do this because she has not allowed herself to get collaboratively overwhelmed. The very first thing that goes out the door when people pass thresholds of overload are these kinds of interactions in networks that generate innovation and scale. Because work, in the end, is about the specific work we do. We network not to build networks, but to make the work go better and to have greater impact.

Throughout, the more-successful people in my research would envision ways that greater results could be produced by leveraging others and engage those groups in a mutually beneficial way. Or they would see that work coming to them could be a developmental opportunity for others on their teams and shift tasks in ways that enabled them to be more efficient, while at the same time building capability in their teams.

In myriad ways, this ability to see work and the network simultaneously was key to how they were able to scale accomplishments in collaboratively intense work.

Using networks to fill knowledge gaps

Usually, core projects create skill gaps. Failing to recognize these gaps—or acknowledging them privately but trying to bluff our way through them publicly—often results in being blindsided at some point. As a rule, successful people more readily admit their shortcomings and find people whose knowledge and skills fill the gaps.

One of the successful leaders in my study personified this approach wonderfully. He was stepping into a new role to replace an externally hired executive who had flamed out after nine months. Gary was promoted from within and was presumed to be a wonderful choice; he was well regarded, had run the major business line in this unit, and with a twenty-plus-year tenure, had a clear understanding of the culture. Yet as soon as he started, he began hearing terms he didn’t understand. The terminology flew by quickly, and he didn’t want to interrupt the high-pressure conversations for vocabulary lessons during the first-impressions phase.

As the days passed, his colleagues and employees seemed to get the sense that he knew what they were talking about. He could have encouraged this misimpression by keeping his mouth shut, but he saw the situation as an opportunity to recognize and supplement his knowledge gaps, which were much greater than he had supposed they would be.

Gary got a notebook and began jotting down every unfamiliar word. At the end of the first month, he met with his team, took out the notebook, and said, “There are thirty-three terms I’ve heard that I don’t understand.” He asked the team to help him fill in the gaps. Many of the terms turned out to be critical to his ability to make good decisions in the new role, and the team was quick to find experts for Gary to rely on.

Successful people tapped networks in different ways to supplement these gaps. The world is too complex today to master every element of any project of substance. It is key to reflect on gaps—typically that occur in technical knowledge, market awareness, cultural understanding, political dynamics, or leadership capabilities—and find ways to supplement your unique value-add through connections.

Connecting with influencers (and resisters) to gain perspective and efficiency

This strategy includes engaging with formal decision makers as well as informal opinion leaders to cultivate influence without authority. Early outreach is commonly a key factor in successful people’s lives. These efforts often head off catastrophic failures in which a project might be halted by a formal committee or key stakeholder.

Equally important, these connections make implementation far more efficient. The best connectors use their networks to quickly defend and marshal support for their ideas. They can accomplish in one or two meetings what it takes others five or more meetings to do.

Formal influencers to consider are those who have decision-making authority over resources such as time, talent, or funding, as well as those who occupy roles where misalignment in objectives can erode team success. Identify relevant formal stakeholders and customize your engagement strategy with them on the basis of their unique needs. A simple but effective exercise is to role-play a meeting with them and take their perspective.

One leader in life sciences described engaging key financial sponsors early on—months ahead of the formal planning and funding process—to make sure that the tasks coming into his unit were well aligned with his employees’ aspirations. He did this not with a detailed slide deck but with a single slide and rich conversations focused on possibilities. “That approach allows us both to create streams of work that better align with our respective needs,” he said.

The key is to look for opportunities to shape the work where doing so will build vital capabilities and increase the team’s engagement. But this is often counterintuitive to people who think they need to perfect the idea—or bulletproof the deck of slides—before outreach.

As for engaging informal opinion leaders, the high performers spent time identifying and engaging those whose perspective had a disproportionate impact on others’ acceptance of an idea or rollout of a new program or process. They were quick to engage these people in ideation and solution-development processes so that their teams incorporated the opinion leaders’ thinking and obtained their support early. The result was that the high performers boosted the efficiency and effectiveness with which their work moved forward. Their projects were less likely to derail at high-stakes approval points.

When evaluating how the network could benefit your work, consider two kinds of influencers: first, those who, by virtue of their connections with disparate parts of the organization, can position your ideas in ways that various teams or units will accept. And, second, those who are listened to by a large number of people; these individuals often dictate how others in a unit or geography feel about your initiative and so have a disproportionate effect on implementation success.

Successful people are often far more likely to reach out to positive people who will spread energy and enthusiasm for an idea. But the key differentiator lies with their greater propensity to proactively identify influential resisters and naysayers. This is a consistently prominent characteristic of high performers. Good collaborators are really persistent in locating and engaging negative opinion leaders early.

Sometimes the naysayers are curmudgeonly people who are de-energizers or overly critical. But more often they are colleagues who have different priorities driven by functional commitments, incentives, or what they personally value in their work. Finding resisters when plans are still in flux might seem risky or even counterproductive, but often it dramatically influences success. Don’t shy away from contacting these people directly.

Deliberately engaging influencers is an often overlooked but critical driver of success. Per one financial-services leader: “Probably 75 percent of the final product features emerge through all the adjustments in implementation. You have to build time into your calendar and forums to message benefits and rationale for your program of work, obtain feedback in pilots, and communicate actions you have taken on that feedback.”

Consider Leo. He was just a few years into his postcollege career at a top technology firm when he was assigned to work on a product extension that would help business customers hit key financial goals.

Leo figured out who might oppose the plan and connected with them early on. “I reached out to two people who I knew were skeptical, and then in a series of meetings that also included my positive energizers, I asked for their input,” he said. “This was critical on two levels for me. First, the ideas I got from the skeptical people were central. Second, just getting their input early got them on my side.”

At several select points, he sought advice from his boss and skip-level manager. The key in these interactions was coming to them not with a perfected plan but rather with something that was 70 percent directionally sound. “I would show them I had done the work and had a plan,” he said, “but then create space for them to help mold it too. I got great ideas this way and also their support.” I have heard that some people take twenty years to figure out that this approach is often better than going in with a fully detailed plan and slide deck. By leaving some room to co-create, you get formal sponsors’ support, and the sponsors tell others about the work as if it were their idea. The payoff is immense in speeding implementation.

Leo carefully turned to his network to implement the solution he developed through his network. He proactively obtained sponsorships from key people. As the project grew, he included people who represented various customers, types of work, and areas of operations. He also drew in potential allies and advisers, as well as network brokers who could bridge internal silos and external groups and connectors who would socialize ideas and be conduits of information.

The lesson in the medium horizon is the importance of intentional network development around one or more core projects or priorities. The first step is to define these efforts and make sure they are truly core. The second step is to initiate connectivity in the four categories discussed earlier to ensure effectiveness of the idea and efficiency of its implementation. These investments give you leverage and scale and add to your reputation. (See the Coaching Break, “Key Network Investments for Medium Horizon.”)


Key Network Investments for Medium Horizon

Reflect on a core project or strategic imperative in your work, one that is substantial to your current and future success. Identify connections in the list that you should initiate, rejuvenate, or tap into over the coming three to six months.

Project or strategic imperative:





Cultivate connections to break out of narrow ideas. Identify domain experts, technical specialists, and downstream stakeholders or consumers whom you should engage as work evolves.





Use networks to fill knowledge gaps. Reflect on technical skills, market knowledge, cultural understanding, or political-awareness gaps related to your work. Identify people or kinds of people who can help you supplement or address gaps.





Envision projects as sets of activities for a network. Identify activities that you could distribute in your network. Look to diffuse ownership early, create mutual wins, and advance development objectives. Remove yourself from the center of the network.





Connect with influencers to gain perspective and efficiency. Reflect on formal leaders and stakeholders—informal influencers and energizers who will spread the word, and naysayers or detractors who might slow diffusion.





Network investments for the medium-term horizon are powerful; they enable you to innovate and execute in ways far beyond your own abilities. But, obviously, not everything happens in the medium term. Some of the most challenging work we do involves very short horizons or very long horizons.

Network Diversity from Conversations across Three Time Horizons

A central insight from my interviews—and hopefully one you can see in your own life through the “Recognizing Your Own Social Ecology” coaching break earlier in this chapter—emerged through the consistent ways successful people cultivate and tap networks across short-, medium-, and long-term planning horizons. Connections within and across these horizons provide a critical foundation of network diversity and performance. But each horizon is qualitatively different in both the nature of the conversations and the network’s benefits to performance.

As we’ve seen, medium-horizon interactions are usually defined by projects’ needs and are central to effective and efficient execution. Most of us live and experience work in the medium horizon. Streams of work with somewhat defined objectives, timelines, and interdependencies structure network actions. Here we see that high performers are prone to be proactive in shaping a more successful set of collaborations. But they also cultivate connections in two other ways that are critical to success: short-horizon and long-horizon interactions that turn out to be equally critical yet more likely to get overlooked as one deals with the present (see figure 6-2).


Three time horizons


Short-horizon interactions are typically shaped by a presenting opportunity, and they are critical to innovation. Long-horizon interactions are forms of exploration that are pivotal for laying the groundwork for future success. These time horizons work as a system. They inform each other. Working across them is what enables successful people to simultaneously deliver more-substantive results and create efficient and innovative networks that fuel future success.

The Short Horizon: Innovation from Micro-Moments

Some of our most pressing challenges are the most immediate. In this horizon, our network choices are usually determined by the nature of a request made of us or the opportunity we envision at a point in time. For example, we get a request from a manager, senior stakeholder, client, or colleague, or we hear of an opportunity to apply our expertise in a given technology to a new problem the company is facing.

At this nascent stage, people are not really thinking about supplementing skill gaps and connecting with influencers. That happens only after a project or stream of work has started to take hold for the medium horizon.

In the short term, it really is about emergent innovation—about reframing the problem or solution space and starting conversations with others who might be involved if things move to the medium horizon. These are often fleeting opportunities where choices made in a micro-moment open up or close down possibilities. Career-defining successes hinge on our posture toward micro-moments. If you have allowed yourself to become collaboratively overloaded, you are far less likely to recognize and take action on these micro-moments. Yet time and time again, my interviewees’ career-defining accomplishments could be traced back to these moments.

Micro-moments tend to take two forms. First is a request—and of course, a request never lands on an empty plate: requests always hit us when we are busy, so our decision in the moment is a critical one. Do we:

  1. Say no?
  2. Cringe but hunker down to address the request as efficiently as possible?
  3. Reframe the request to provide a more comprehensive solution that involves others?

The second kind of micro-moment occurs when we envision a possibility—for example, when an idea sparks as we pass someone in the hallway (or see them on a video conference), we gain a unique insight when someone pops up on LinkedIn, or we have a “doorway moment”—a thought as we are leaving a meeting. These ideas are usually just vague intuitions, and they never occur when we are sitting idly with an hour of free time. Rather, they happen when we are late for the next meeting or still have a mountain of email to address. Responses typically include:

  1. Discarding the idea
  2. Making a note to follow up
  3. Maybe capitalizing on the micro-moment to explore the possibility while the idea—and the interaction with your colleague—is fresh

What is your typical response to both kinds of micro-moments? People who opt for choices one or two in both lists of actions—in other words, who choose not to take a more expansive route—end up accomplishing less-substantive outcomes, and their networks remain more insular than those who default to option three.

The high performers more frequently choose the third option on both lists. They have a greater tendency to recognize these opportunities as possible inflection points. They are able to pause and engage their networks to follow up on and explore these potentially fruitful ideas. Through tapping their networks broadly—and early—they envision solutions with greater impact and create positive reputations. They win by simultaneously accomplishing more and building social capital for themselves.

Over time, the results they produce elevate and distinguish them from colleagues who are similarly intelligent and working often longer hours. Many of the successful women and men in my research were able to trace their career-defining accomplishments to pursuits of half-formed ideas during micro-moments.

Harvesting a micro-moment

For most of us, one of the most challenging aspects of network investments in the micro-moment is that they are too easily put off or ignored, especially during times of ambiguity or feverish activity. And, to be fair, it is not as if people get fired for failing to take the more expansive route in a micro-moment. They usually produce a satisfactory result but not one that is as significant or that builds social capital in the same way as the high performers.

It is important to react quickly to these fleeting opportunities, for three reasons. First, as the network and peoples’ priorities change, your chance to do something big might come and go more quickly than you realize. Second, with our suspect memories, we lose these moments in the ether a lot more than we realize. Third, it is difficult to coordinate follow-on interactions and to rebuild interest once others have moved on.

You need to program yourself to react to the moment and reach out and start exploring to see what could be done with ambiguous opportunities. The most fruitful connections entail exploration with people who have complementary or adjacent expertise, cutting-edge technical insights, or unique market or client perspectives. Of all the things about networks that companies fail to tell their employees—and all the things that networking books fail to tell their readers—this is the biggest omission.

The lesson from this time horizon is to pause, for just a moment, and make sure you are not ignoring micro-moments that could define you. Success doesn’t come from simply building a structurally diverse network where you are always interacting with people who are in other pockets of the organization. Rather, in the micro-moment, it comes in response to a request or idea and reaching out across network divides to people with unique expertise or perspectives who can help frame a better solution.

Leo, who we met earlier, is an example of reacting quickly and expansively to a short-horizon assignment. He knew he needed help right away with the product extension he was assigned to handle. The first person he went to was the original product’s manager. This individual put him in touch with a data scientist and an engineer who could offer additional help with the product extension Leo was working on and help Leo fill his knowledge gaps.

To get others involved, Leo realized he needed to be clear about what he knew and enthusiastic about why others’ work mattered to him. He was successful in bringing them on board: despite his youth and inexperience, he convened productive brainstorming sessions with them, tapping their knowledge and creativity. His roommate, too, was a good sounding board: he had a similar job in a different company and helped Leo think through the processes and the relationships.

These actions on Leo’s part required going against the grain: “I kind of took a risk reaching out to some of the client side to get access to client feedback,” he said. The solution he developed went well beyond what he was asked to do. And that success became the thing that put Leo on the top-talent list and led to future projects with far greater visibility than traditionally afforded someone of his tenure.

The Long Horizon: Seeding the Future

The long horizon is when you are seeding networks through exploration and creating scale through co-creation. Network-exploration investments in the long horizon are crucial because they enable you to see and solve problems differently than people who do not make these investments. These connections are what enable you to capitalize on the micro-moments (short horizon) and pivot well (medium horizon). But they are also the most challenging of all because the lack of any deadline tempts us to put them off or ignore them altogether.

As we’ve seen, the amazing thing about the most successful collaborators is that they don’t put off or ignore these investments, no matter how busy things get. Instead, they are continually exploring and constantly co-creating.

Continually exploring

Successful collaborators create awareness of adjacent expertise through exploratory discussions. Engaging in exploratory interactions and cultivating network connections ahead of any specific need dramatically affects their capacity to spot opportunities. This practice also shapes their ability to frame more-encompassing and more-relevant problem and solution trajectories.

Deep knowledge of a network creates a wider aperture for seeing and shaping novel solutions. When confronted with a challenge or opportunity, people with a rich sense of the expertise and capabilities around them see possibilities largely because of who they know. High performers create this depth of awareness through intentional, exploratory discussions across silos.

Stories of career-defining successes consistently emphasized the importance of knowing expertise throughout the network. For example, consider a finance manager who worked for years with a client on restructuring the client’s long-term strategy. Recalling conversations with colleagues in two other areas of the business, she envisioned a solution that led her to create a cross-unit team that developed and managed a new scope of work: “When you learn who knows what, in other parts of the organization, and cultivate those relationships, it broadens your view and can spark an idea when you are working on a project,” she said. She proposed the idea, which resulted in a solution that merged several instruments to address the client’s need. Without cross-unit relationships, this manager would have offered a routine, transactional service rather than a higher-margin solution that became a successful product line and a career-defining moment for her.

Good long-horizon collaborators make exploratory discussions with their networks routine. They embrace routines that systematically set up meetings to discuss how they could potentially work with others to achieve greater impact. They use these meetings to familiarize themselves with, and to spread awareness of, the interests and expertise residing in their networks. They take time to have off-task conversations, and they constantly ask questions that are outside the scope of any particular project.

In addition, they often hold forums that provide insight into their or their teams’ work. In these forums, they engage in creative dialogues to help people envision how their capabilities could potentially address a problem or solution space.

You can do this too. When you do it, always situate the information about your capabilities within the context of others’ needs. “We used to start with a stock presentation to try and get line units to see how to better come to us,” one leader said. “It never really worked. Then one day a technical issue forced me off slides and to a discussion where I just had the people in the room tell me their top five problems. I put the problems on a flipchart, and we had an unbelievable dialogue on how we could help. The dialogue turned into a phenomenal collaboration with that group … It never would have happened if I was just presenting.”

The good long-horizon collaborators’ reputations for curiosity actually generate ideas. Knowing that the successful collaborators will be interested and open-minded, people come to them with all kinds of faint glimmers of unformed impressions, hypotheses, and hunches. In give-and-take in hallways, stairways, elevators, and pubs, these vague notions evolve into well-formed ideas. These are exhilarating experiences that both the high performers and their colleagues enjoy. The result is that the high performers are seen as “idea people,” when in fact their main asset is their receptivity.

The point is that these long-term explorations are an essential part of the work of successful people in today’s hyperconnected organizations. These interactions are not things to do when you have time. They are as essential as the work itself.

But you need to do them in a way that creates network efficiency. Successful people do this through early co-creation.

Constantly co-creating

Effective collaborators are not exclusively focused on how new colleagues in their networks can help them. Rather, their orientation and the ways they navigate discussions are around what could be done together. They are always thinking about constituents’ needs. They understand that co-creation means co-ownership, and co-ownership brings forth others’ time and energy.

They invest in learning the aspirations and talents of employees and colleagues across silos and boundaries. Then they co-create solutions, incorporating those aspirations and tapping those talents. They delegate in ways that create clarity and engagement, expressing trust by granting latitude.

This relationship foundation is critical in the short-term micro-moments and medium-term pivot points. You know this yourself. When you get an outreach from people who have just celebrated their own accomplishments or inquired into your expertise solely for their own needs, you are reluctant to help, at best. In contrast, help is often enthusiastically forthcoming when the successful collaborators ask, because they earlier interacted with others in ways that bred trust and engagement in mutual pursuits. For the successful people, this is not a game of indiscriminate networking but rather targeted investments that provide innovation, execution, and efficiency through connections.

When Abby was promoted to lead a newly formed practice area of a global professional-services firm, she made a well-planned effort to gain awareness of where types of expertise lay in the network. She held one-on-one meetings with managers and technical experts who would help establish the new practice area. She took time to understand what they currently did, their career histories, and the type of work they were most interested in. She asked them who else was doing interesting work or might have skills or knowledge related to what they were doing; then she followed up to build ties into other functions, levels, and locations. She arranged regular one-on-one meetings with the other practice leaders, her boss, and other vice presidents, establishing trust and rapport with senior leadership.

Even as she became immersed in business development and client delivery, Abby routinely had coffee or lunch to meet newcomers or stay connected with colleagues across the organization. “You have to map out these meetings or check-ins every week, even when you think you don’t have time,” she said. “It’s an essential part of the job. It’s the only way you have access to expertise or can connect the dots to help you make decisions.”

Before discussing the nuts and bolts of an idea, the high performers ensure that everyone fully understands the work’s reason for being. What is the ultimate purpose of the idea? How does it help everyone meet mutually beneficial goals? They invite people to validate the importance of the work. By doing this, the high performers consistently achieve greater engagement from their employees and colleagues.

They also take the broadest possible view of the concept of “why.” They think about why the work matters to the company as a whole; why it matters to the world; why it matters to their own careers; why they will feel great about it—or not—after all is said and done.

About a year into her new role, Abby saw an opportunity to pursue a complex project that was beyond the scope of her group. Rather than dismissing it as too ambitious, she envisioned a strategic capability that combined expertise across three practice areas.

From her many exploratory conversations, she remembered a project in the same sector. She knew of others in the firm who might be willing to collaborate, and she was aware of teams that had related technical skills. She also knew an ambitious project manager who was seeking a bigger, high-profile opportunity.

It was this awareness of capacity in the network that prompted Abby to think deeply about what was possible—an investment that resulted in an innovative proposal, a new way to service large clients, and a huge win for Abby and her organization.

But Who Has the Time?

OK, I know what you’re thinking: you’re much too busy to do all this network development. Let me remind you that the people I studied didn’t have huge networks of dozens of people, nor did they spend hours at networking events. They had from a half dozen to two dozen choice, well-placed network ties that were mutually rewarding. Of course, they knew and could turn to a much larger population, but their core network typically fell into this range.

Let’s break this down to see the actual time commitments. A typical high performer we studied characterized the time investment like this:

  • Short-horizon micro-moments. Two to four hours a month. Most ideas don’t go anywhere, but a few matter substantially. (Even the ideas that don’t go anywhere end up seeding relationships.)
  • Medium-horizon network investments around execution. Eight to twelve hours a month across all categories, depending on the point in the project life cycle.
  • Long-horizon exploration investments. Six to eight hours a month.

Obviously these numbers vary by role, level, and, to some degree, personality. But let’s say for a typical person, an average is somewhere between sixteen to twenty-four hours a month in these activities. This is not a ridiculous amount in the context of the enormous payoff. But it does point to the critical role of freeing time to make these investments (see chapters 35).

This is not the kind networking where you put an hour or two a week into phone calls. This is truly a different way of driving innovation and execution in an interconnected world. However, efficient collaborators get back more than enough time for these interactions. And the true payoff is a much higher likelihood of staying on the high-performer path and engaging in spheres of life that fuel our well-being.

What you need to keep in mind is the efficiency in work that tends to accrue for these people. Opportunities flow to people who engage in this way due to their reputations. And those who connect in the way I am describing across the time horizons experience less friction in trying to get plans through later. What can take a less connected colleague days if not weeks of bullet-proofing an idea becomes one meeting with high energy and engagement for these successful women and men.

And as your reputation builds, your future work meets less friction.

I have heard people complain time and again that they’ll never succeed at developing their networks because they’re not comfortable hobnobbing with crowds, or they’re not especially “social,” or they’re not “political.”

But the most-effective collaborators showed me that their success in investing in network resources had nothing to do with any of that. They didn’t amass vast networks. Many of them weren’t especially social. And none of them were magically connected politically. They succeeded because they were selective about the makeup of their networks, and they focused on producing outcomes of greater value for themselves and others.

They also showed me the power of reputation in pulling people, ideas, and opportunities toward themselves. That is the topic of the next chapter.

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