We often spend a lot of time cultivating strong connections with the people close to us on the organizational chart — with our boss and our direct reports topping the list. Too often, these efforts come at the expense of forging alliances with our peers — internal and external.
In my work as an executive coach, I often ask leaders about the strength of their network. At the mention of “network,” many people cringe — as you may be right now — because they immediately jump to the notion of “networking.”
I am not talking about an awkward event with nametags. I’m talking about the quality of your day-to-day career connections.
- Do you have the right people you can turn to for guidance and advice?
- Do you have effective relationships with people who can help you learn and grow?
- Are there people in your circle who will provide direct and honest feedback?
- Is your circle of influence strong?
Great leaders surround themselves with the right people. They are strategic and intentional about identifying key stakeholders with whom they need to have strong and effective relationships. They proactively nurture those relationships for the benefit of their team and the organization overall. And, they recognize this isn’t a “one-and-done” activity. Top leaders make relationship building an integral part of their role.
Internal coalition-building is essential for gaining support, increasing visibility and reducing the feeling of isolation that leaders, particularly at the top, may experience. Having allies in the organization — who understand personalities, office politics and corporate culture—is invaluable capital for leaders at all levels but particularly important for new leaders.
Equally important to having internal alliances is an external network of advisors and experts in your field. People from whom you can both learn and to whom you can be a resource.
External peers provide an avenue for information-sharing and a sounding board. Smart leaders learn from others outside their organization to bring in fresh ideas and keep a pulse on how others are tackling issues of the day. Insights from external peers also boosts your credibility internally. You’re armed to say things like, “XYZ firm recently implemented a new software that’s help reduce the cost of email marketing by 20%.”
Wherever you may be in your journey as a leader, the best time to start building a strategic network of peers is now. Here are five steps to widen — and strengthen — those circles of connections.
Step 1: Make a list
Let’s start with your colleagues at work. Ask yourself:
- Who should I connect with to make this role a success? For example, the heads of other departments that my group supports and from which my group gets support.
- Who are the most admired leaders within the organization?
- Who are key players within the organization? If you’re new to the organization, you might enlist your new boss and HR’s support to identify the must-meet leaders for your new role. If you’ve been with your organization for a while, think about people who have led big projects or may be working in an area of the company that you’d like to learn more about.
When you’re ready to move to external contacts, make your list by asking:
- Who do I already know in my field?
- Who are my second-level connections via LinkedIn who have a similar role to mine?
- Who are thought leaders in my field? For example, an individual you follow on LinkedIn or someone who’s written an article or been interviewed on a podcast you enjoyed.
- Who have I met at industry-specific conferences and through professional groups?
Step 2: Start connecting
Whether your focus is internal or external, with your initial target list in hand, it’s time to start connecting. (By the way, I say initial list because connection building should become part of your routine as a leader.)
This is the part where some of my clients struggle. So, I recommend they shift their mindset away from the idea of “networking” to one of growth and learning. I like to think about it as widening your circle and building a community. And to focus on the opportunities that may develop from new connections rather than the process of making them.
For internal colleagues, it can be as simple as emailing, “I’m curious to learn more about what your group is working on. Would you be up for a coffee (lunch / video call / phone conversation)?” Or perhaps, “My team is working on a new project. I’d love to get your thoughts and ideas as we move forward.”
For external contacts, you might direct message them via LinkedIn or send an email. Your message would vary depending on your level of familiarity with the person. “I’m stepping into a new role as CMO and would love to hear about your journey and your advice for me. Would you mind making time for a short introductory call with me?”
Don’t overthink it. I find that my clients often fret about being a burden. The goal is to forge a mutually beneficial relationship. Go into this process with the goal of not only learning from others but also providing assistance, sharing ideas and making introductions. While it may feel awkward, especially for those of us who are more introverted, my experience is that most people more than welcome the chance to connect and expand their own network.
Step 3: Have conversations
Now you’re ready to start having conversations. You may be thinking, what will we talk about? How will I make the most of the conversations? From my perspective, the key is genuine curiosity. Come with a few areas of inquiry and conversation starters but, as I said before, don’t overthink it.
For example, you might learn more about their career path or their current role.
- Tell me about how you got to where you are.
- Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?
- What’s your typical day like?
- What are your favorite sources to stay on top of trends?
- How is your team structured?
- What other advice do you have?
During the conversation you should think about how you can add value too. Who can you introduce them to? What future help can you offer? What experience do you have that they might leverage?
Down the road, these connections become a resource and a sounding board for idea sharing. Ideally, the relationship starts to become more two-way, where you’re both a student and a teacher.
Step 4: Stay connected
Once you’ve had your first meeting, find a way to schedule your next conversation. You could say, “This was super helpful. Would you be up for finding a time to reconnect in a few months?”
Whether or not your situation merits meeting regularly, be sure to find ways to stay connected and add value. For example, you might share a podcast or article that you think they might appreciate. “This article reminded me of our conversation about feeling overwhelmed. I particularly like the idea of a daily close-out routine.” Or check in with them on a personal topic. “How’s your daughter’s baseball team doing this season?”
Step 5: Make a routine
It’s easy to let connection-making fall to the wayside when you’re busy leading a team and meeting deadlines. Great leaders will differentiate themselves by the strength of their network. The ease with which they can call upon someone for advice and counsel. And, on the flip side, be a resource to others.
I love the discipline that Art Petty writes about. He recommends adding “strengthen network” to your weekly planning by answering these three questions:
- What relationships will I start this week?
- What relationships do I need to renew this week?
- What relationships do I need to repair this week?
Whether you’re stepping into a new role or looking to step up your game at work, leaders at all levels will benefit from cultivating relationships beyond their immediate circle of influence.
In an interview, former Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski said the best career advice he ever got was from his mother. She told him, “Only let good people on your bus because you’re never going to get to your destination alone.”
Who do you want on your bus? What are the key relationships you need to succeed? What connections will you create to bolster your influence?
To help put into action the ideas presented in this article, take a look at my worksheet: Widen Your Circle of Connections.
Elisabeth Owen Hayes is an executive coach who works with ambitious mid-career professionals and senior executives to expand their leadership skills, transition into next-level roles and navigate career moves. Find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.