Successful leaders have a nose for opportunity and a
knack for knowing whom to tap to get things done. These qualities depend on a set of strategic networking skills that non-leaders rarely possess.

In a study, Herminia Ibarra and Mark Hunter followed managers making their way through “leadership transition” – an inflection point in the careers of the managers that challenged them to rethink both themselves and their roles.

In the process they found that networking creating a fabric of personal contacts who will provide support, feedback, insight, resources, and information was simultaneously one of the most self-evident and one of the most feared developmental challenges that aspiring leaders had to address.

Why the discomfort? Typically, managers rise through the ranks by dint of a strong command of the technical elements of their jobs and laser focus on accomplishing their teams’ objectives. When challenged to move beyond their functional specialties and address strategic issues facing the overall organization, many managers do not immediately grasp that this will involve relational, not analytical, tasks.

Nor do they easily understand that exchanges and interactions with diverse array of current and potential stakeholders are not distractions from their “real work” but are actually at the heart of their new leadership roles.

Watching emerging leaders approach the task of building the relevant networks, Ibarra and Hunter discovered that three distinct but interdependent forms of networking played a vital role in the transition of these leaders: operational, personal, and strategic. The first helped them manage current internal responsibilities, the second boosted their personal development, and the third opened their eyes to new business directions and stakeholders they would need to enlist.


Operational Networking

All managers need to build good working relationships with the people who can help them do their jobs. Such operational networks include not only direct reports and superiors but also peers within an operational unit, other internal players with the power to block or support a project, and key outsiders such as suppliers, distributors, and customers. The purpose of this type of networking is to ensure coordination and cooperation among people who have to know and trust one another in order to accomplish their immediate tasks.


Personal Networking

Once aspiring leaders awaken to the dangers of an excessively internal focus, they become aware of the limitations of their social skill, such as the lack of knowledge abut professional domains beyond their own, which makes it difficult for them to find common ground with people outside their usual circles.

Personal networks are largely external, made up of discretionary links to people with whom we have something in common. As a result, what makes a personal network powerful is its referral potential. A personal network can also be a safe space for personal development and as such can provide a foundation for strategic networking.


Strategic Networking

When managers begin the delicate transition from functional manager to organisational leader, they must start to concern themselves with broad strategic issues. Lateral and vertical relationships with other functional and unit managers all people outside their immediate control  become a lifeline for figuring out how their own contributions fit into the big picture. Thus strategic networking positions the leader into a set of relationships and information sources that collectively embody the power to achieve personal and organizational goals.

What differentiates a leader from a manager, research indicates, is the ability to figure out where to go and to enlist the people and groups necessary to get there. Recruiting stakeholders, lining up allies and sympathizers, diagnosing the political landscape, and brokering conversations among unconnected parties are all part of a leader’s job. As they step up to the leadership transition, some managers accept their growing dependence on others and seek to transform it into mutual influence. Others dismiss such work as “political” and, as a result, undermine their ability to advance their goals.

The key to good a strategic network is leverage: the ability to marshal information, support, and resources from one sector of a network to achieve results in another. Strategic networkers use indirect influence, convincing one person in the network to get someone else, who is not in the network, to take needed action.

Moreover, strategic networkers don’t just influence their relational environment; they shape it in their own image by moving and hiring subordinates, changing suppliers and sources of financing, lobbying to place allies in peer positions, and even restructuring their boards to create networks favorable to their organizational goals.


Building Your Network

You have to work to build your networks, but the task can be daunting, because it involves reaching outside the borders of a manager’s comfort zone. How, then can managers lessen the pain and increase the gain. Ibarra and Hunter advise that managers should leverage the elements from each domain of networking into the others. Above all, they suggest, many managers will need to change their attitudes about the legitimacy and necessity of networking.

Mind your mindset. Often many aspiring leaders do not believe that networking is one of the most important requirements of their new jobs, so they do not allocate enough time and effort to see it pay off. The best solution to this predicament is a good role model. Many times, what appears to be unpalatable or unproductive behavior takes on a new light when a person you respect does it well and ethically.

Work from the outside in. One of the most difficult aspects of strategic networking is that there often seems to be no natural “excuse” for making contact with a more senior person outside one’s function or business unit. It is difficult to build a relationship with anyone, let alone a senior executive, without a reason for interacting, like a common task or shared purpose. Some successful managers find common ground from the outside in  by for instance, transposing a personal interest into the strategic domain.

Ask and you shall receive. Many managers equate having a good network with having a large database of contacts, or attending high-profile professional conferences and events. But they falter at the next step  picking the phone. Instead, they wait until they need something badly. The best networkers do exactly the opposite: They take every opportunity to give to, and receive from, the network, whether they need help or not.

Stick to it. It takes a while to reap the benefits of networking. Building a leadership network is less a matter of skill than of will. When first efforts do not bring quick rewards, some may simply conclude that networking isn’t among their talents. But networking is not a talent; nor does it require gregarious, extroverted personality. It is a skill, one that takes practice.

Making a successful leadership transition requires a shift from the confines of a clearly defined operational network. Aspiring leaders must learn to build and use strategic networks that cross organisa-tional and functional boundaries, and then link them up in novel and innovative ways. Leaders must accept that networking is one of the most important requirements of their new leadership roles and continue to allocate enough time and effort to see it pay off.

Captain Sam Addaih (Rtd)


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