Nowadays, conversations about networking inevitably begin with someone asking something along the lines of: "so, how many followers do you have?” or “how big is your LinkedIn network?”
The popularity of social media has driven us towards viewing our personal networks much like commodities traders may view their goods: They never actually see the product in their portfolio, they just broker the connection between buyer and seller and move on.
Here's the problem: networking doesn’t quite work that way. Sure, a list of valuable connections could be viewed as somewhat of a commodity, but it’s not merely a game of numbers.
According to Leslie DeChurch, professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, there are two major misconceptions when it comes to building a strong network, and both center on size. She points out that there are those who believe in the mantra bigger is better and there are those who believe that smaller more concentrated network is the way to go. Research has shown both views to be flawed.
DeChurch points out that research has found that there are three key ingredients to a healthy personal network: diversity, trust and brokerage.
Diversity. The greatest hurdle in building a strong network is our natural human tendency to be drawn to those who are similar to us. Whether it’s those within our industry, position or socioeconomic status, we tend to be most comfortable with that which is familiar. However comforting this may feel, being around like-minded people rarely leads to new thinking or new and unique opportunities. When everyone in your network has roughly the same information, it creates a sort of echo chamber of recycled thoughts.
DeChurch recommends making a conscious effort to break out of your professional circles by finding ways to engage those who you wouldn’t typically come encounter. To help expand your network, she recommends joining a cross-functional team at work, signing-up for local community events, or volunteering for a nonprofit board. The idea is to gain exposure to individuals who may be able to show you different ways of applying your talents. At the end of the day, you must break from your typical circles if you want new opportunities.
Trust and Quality. Having a large social media network has no doubt become a status symbol in today’s society. However, there isn’t necessarily the kind of value in big numbers that we like to think, particularly when it comes to our online profiles. Being digitally connected to someone doesn’t mean you know them. Trust is about familiarity and willingness to take risks. A strong network is about being connected to those who can genuinely add value to your life and have the desire to do so.
DeChurch recommends taking a look at your LinkedIn InMap to assess the health of your network. If the majority of your connections are all people you know because they are connected to each other, your network is likely quite weak. Also, if you have a high number of connections that are haphazard and frivolous, you may not be able to rely on those connections for real opportunities.
A strong network is more about the quality of your connections and their willingness to lend a helping hand. Make sure to take the time to nurture your relationships with those who really matter.
Brokerage.When diagnosing the health of your network, DeChurch suggests evaluating how many groups you are part of because networks research has shown the best way to get access to new opportunities is though certain “weak ties” or those connections that are outside of or normal circles, but still meaningful. Success in any endeavor requires branching out.
When building your network it’s important to get connected to those weak ties that may be able to act as hubs or connectors who can provide us a foot-in-the-door to other networks. These connectors will allow you to forge your way into new networks and ultimately become a hub or connector yourself.
In the not-so-distant past good networking was more about who you were connected to and the potential value of that connection in bolstering your cause. Now, it’s more about the number of people you have the ability to poke or message at a moment’s notice than it is about the actual quality of your connection. Keep in mind, social media sites like LinkedIn are tools and like any tool, if not used correctly you won’t get the desired results.
Michael “Dr. Woody” Woodward, PhD is a CEC certified executive coach trained in organizational psychology. Dr. Woody is author of The YOU Plan: A 5-step Guide to Taking Charge of Your Career in the New Economy and the new on-line course The YOU Plan for Career Change on Udemy. Dr. Woody is the founder of Human Capital Integrated (HCI), a firm focused on management and leadership development. Dr. Woody also sits on the advisory board of the Florida International University Center for Leadership. Follow Dr. Woody on Twitter and Facebook.