Networking and Leadership: Secrets of the Super Connectors

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Networking and Leadership: Secrets of the Super Connectors

Being able to network is a crucial part of a leader’s job, so how do you do it effectively?


BY FIONA SMITH

 

When the former chief executive of clothing retailer Best & Less, Holly Kramer, wanted to launch her board career, she made a spreadsheet to map out everyone she knew who could help her get her first appointment as a non-executive director.

“I methodically went through setting up meetings and going out to tell people I was interested in finding non-executive roles, and I also wanted to get advice from people who had done it before me,” says Kramer from her home base in the NSW Southern Highlands.

From that start 12 months ago, Kramer has scooped up a prestigious collection of roles, and is now on the boards of Woolworths, AMP Limited, Nine Entertainment Co and Australia Post.

Being able to network effectively is a crucial part of a leader’s job and it’s what distinguishes them from managers, according to Herminia Ibarra, professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD business school.

Leaders require the ability to “figure out where to go and to enlist the people and groups necessary to get there”, Ibarra wrote in an article for the Harvard Business Review. “Recruiting stakeholders, lining up allies and sympathisers, diagnosing the political landscape, and brokering conversations among unconnected parties are all part of a leader’s job.”

The US-raised Kramer admits she hasn’t always been such an effective networker. While she was building her executive career from her marketing background at companies such as the Ford Motor Company (which brought her to Australia), Telstra and Pacific Brands, she kept her focus on the job in front of her, rather than building relationships that could take her to the next step in her career.

“In the middle stages of their career, people think it is more important to keep focused on tasks at hand,” she explains. “But they have to create networks outside of their company and outside of their industry, and those contacts become incredibly valuable as you move forward in your career, and a lot of people underestimate that.”

“Recruiting stakeholders, lining up allies and sympathisers, diagnosing the political landscape, and brokering conversations among unconnected parties are all part of a leader’s job.”

Kramer had what she calls her “aha” moment when she began to notice that her male colleagues had an advantage because they used their personal networks to make calls and connections.

“It becomes a part of doing business to have strong networks outside of your company and industry, knowing good people to refer for business purposes. And yet, when you are at a lower level, you feel guilty going out to lunch and not staying at your desk, working hard. There is a point in time when you realise it is actually the reverse.”

Kramer says that her last couple of executive roles and all of her non-executive roles have come through her relationships. “My attitude has certainly changed.”

The best networkers, known as super networkers, understand that creating connections is not just about what people can do for them, but it is, firstly, about what they can do for others.

Where networking goes wrong is when it becomes a one-sided attempt to better yourself through other people.

“My view of building networks is that it is more of an organic process and I tend to want to stay in contact with people who I regard highly and find interesting and learn a lot from,” says Kramer.

Since she moved from Sydney to the Southern Highlands with her family, Kramer’s contacts have widened beyond city business circles. Her daughter’s interest in equestrian sports has given her a new range of acquaintances.

“I do find that people whose social life doesn’t go very far from their work life – and neither of those go very far from the Sydney CBD – can lose touch with reality,” she says.

HOW TO USE YOUR NETWORK

While some people in business may think that a close circle of influential friends is all they need to rely on, research shows that it is actually people who are only loosely connected to us that bring the greatest benefit in passing on opportunities or helping stimulate great ideas.

US sociologist Mark Granovetter maintains that the more loose connections we have (weak ties) – effectively friends of friends and people even further removed from our everyday lives – the more connected to the world we are.

Those close to us at work and in our social lives are more likely to be having the same opportunities and ideas as we do.

That’s why when you’re chasing an introduction to a key person, it may take two or three links (degrees of separation between people) before you can get to them, explains Katie Lahey, the executive chair, Australasia, for recruitment and consultancy firm Korn Ferry.

Lahey, the former chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, is widely regarded as a superb networker.

“If you want to meet [well-connected philanthropist] David Gonski, for instance, is there someone in your mass of contacts that is sitting on a board with David, or sitting on a board with somebody that knows David?” she asks.

When you get a meeting, always enquire if there is somebody else you should meet. If they offer the name of one of their own contacts, ask if they would phone ahead to make the introduction, suggests Lahey.

“You are not asking them to make 10 phone calls, you are only asking them to make one. Then, finish up by asking if there is anything you can do in return.”

She says if you are starting off on networking for something like a board career, you have to treat it like a project.

“It can’t be ad hoc. If you have capacity, you need one day a week of contacting people who may be helpful for your next career move.”

If you identify around 20 people to contact, you need to have coffees with two or three of them a week, Lahey advises. Chat to them on the phone to get them interested, and think beyond your own city.

Lahey herself has a methodical approach to maintaining her contacts. If she is invited to a lunch or gathering, for instance, she will ask for a guest list beforehand so that she knows who she needs to talk to and can put some faces to the names.

“I have a terrible memory for names and you have to put those pieces together very quickly, otherwise you can make a fool of yourself.”

While Lahey is enthusiastic about LinkedIn, she adds that at the “top end of town”, connections have to be made face-to-face.

THE SEARCH FOR THE GOLDEN CONTACT

When executives come through the doors of outplacement firm Directioneering for the very first time, their most important mission is to connect with someone who can help them get their next job, says the business’s founder Nick Plummer. And, more often than not, the person they most want to meet is David Gonski.

Gonski, a well-known philanthropist and businessman, is also known as the “chairman of everything” because of his many corporate appointments.

Plummer says great networkers like Gonski have a desire to know people, communicate with people, and help people.

“And if you have a power base to operate from, that enables you to do those things better as well, which is probably why Gonski is so good at it,” he says. “Time with him is looked upon as gold because he knows everybody and he can gain anything.”

“A lot of managing directors are super networkers and they probably spend more time with their network than they do with their families…”

Directioneering helps executives transition to new roles, often after they have lost their last job. But Plummer says 58 per cent of them find new employment through their own network of contacts.

“Those people who come through here and they don’t have a network, and they have no clue how to network, they are with us for so much longer,” he says.

A wide network on social media can provide opportunities, but it is not always the same thing as being well connected.

Says Plummer: “The great thing about LinkedIn is you can get into any organisation you want. However, you don’t see Gonski very much on LinkedIn. I can’t see him spending very much time on Facebook – but many people do.

“A lot of managing directors are super networkers and they probably spend more time with their network than they do with their families and so opportunities are put in front of them much more often.”

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