Growing Your Network of Relationships, Part One
To grow your network, it helps to visualize what you see as your network
The key to growing your network is to do it organically through the people you already know.
“Who do you know that you think I should know, and would you introduce me.”
When you do this, you should have some reason why you want to do this. You should have a question or a topic of interest that drives you to expand your network. You should have some aim or defining interest that directs people to the introductions that they will make. This is why I wrote the Circle of Impact: Taking Personal Initiative To Ignite Change. When you take initiative to grow your Network of Relationships, you have begun to transform your life from something maybe small and insignificant to one where your life has a deep and wide impact upon your community, and possibly the wider world.
I am definitely saying that you should take a step beyond merely accepting new relationships serendipitously. That is fine, but it is a bit too passive and limiting. I am saying, “Take the initiative to reach out to people.” It is somewhat like cold-call sales. It can be scary and embarrassing, particularly if you are more of a responsive type of person. If someone asks you to do something, you may do it. But taking the initiative? That is another story, isn’t it?
This is why people get stuck in small, closed networks where they become isolated and their relationships are boring. It is why we end up living vicariously through other people’s lives that we see on YouTube. And, why we end up late in life alone because we haven’t spent our entire lives expanding our Networks of Relationships. We expand our networks because we have something to contribute and the people that we are introduced to have something to offer too.
This is why I see that “all leadership begins with personal initiative to create impact that makes a difference that matters.” We grow our networks because it is a lifestyle choice.
For all these reasons, I believe having a purpose to grow our Network of Relationships is essential for our mental, emotional, and spiritual health. It is essential for expanding one’s career opportunities. It is essential for being a person of impact. Want to be happy? Grow your Network of Relationships.
Applying Basic Network Theory to Your Network
One of the obstacles to growing a Network of Relationships is understanding its structure.
Previously, I told my story of moving to a new community with the names of three guys to call that were given to me by three associates where I used to live. I called them and met with each of them. I told them my plans for starting a consulting practice, and then asked, ‘Who do you know that you think I should know, and would you introduce me?” I ended up with between 20 and 25 names and phone numbers. I called each of them and asked the same question. That process led to my first consulting contract. It also led me into relationships with a mentor and a community partner who did much to advance my work.
In order to really understand what I talking about, I believe it helps to visualize how this works. I recently spent most of the day creating a set of diagrams that I am presenting here. The idea for the diagrams comes from Ronald Burt’s diagrams that are much more sophisticated in his books on networks and social capital.*
Diagram 1: Structural Holes
This is the simplest way to understand a basic network. In this diagram, let’s say A represents you. B and C represent two people that you know that do not know each other. The gap or hole that exists between B and C is called a Structural Hole. In network design, because B and C do not know each other and do not have a relationship with each other, they cannot help one another.
I have a friend in Australia and a friend in England. Neither knows one another. However, I think they both would benefit from getting to know each other. Last week I sent them an email introducing them to each other. My friend in Australia responded that he’ll be in England in November, and so they hope they can get together. This is how a Structural Hole is filled.
In another situation, a person contacted me wanting to build a relationship. He wasn’t specific about what he wanted, just that he thought that we should be working together. We had met three years ago but had no contact since. There are two other fellows who live near him that I am working with jointly. I invited him to join us. He turned us down. He did not want to operate in a network of relationships. He wanted something more individualized.
Diagram 2: Network Bridge
When a Structural Hole is closed, it is called a Network Bridge. Now communication between A, B, and C can tap into new ideas, new resources, and new contacts with other people.
If your Network of Relationships is already closed, meaning there are no Structural Holes in it, meaning that everyone knows everyone else, there should be a high degree of trust and safety in your relationships. This is important to have in times of transition. But it is not always true that small, close networks are this way. Particularly, because times of transitions produce feelings of vulnerability and inadequacy that result in mimetic conflict. As a result, as I pointed out above, many people do not venture beyond the boundary of their circle. There is a problem with this structure.
One of the patterns of behavior that I describe in my article, The Ostrich, The Peacock, and The Sheepdog is that of The Ostrich.
The Ostrich has skills and experience that enabled them to rise through the ranks to a position of authority. But, they don’t like to be held accountable. They are afraid of being identified as inadequate, or worse a fraud. So they hide. They hide in their office, isolated from what is happening in the other offices or on the shop floor. They created a climate of control by creating a meeting regimen that does not ever change. It is safe, predictable, and designed to avoid creating thought. They have their head in the ground. Hiding. Letting their competitors outpace them to the forefront of their industry.
The problem with this pattern of behavior and a network that is closed in this manner is that it has little access to new information. Imagine if you fell asleep, like Rip Van Winkle, on the day of your birth, and not waking up until this morning. Imagine what you would have missed? This is what a closed network means. Loss of access to information about the world.
When an organization finds itself in this position, it means that its client list isn’t growing. Their product line isn’t growing. Their talent pool isn’t expanding. A network where all the Structural Holes have been Bridged is a network that will ultimately find itself in isolation and crisis.
Diagram 3: Network Brokerage
A network expands through the brokering of relationships between people.
There are twelve people or nodes in the picture of this network. However, three of them stand out. Persons A, J, and E are people who are brokering new relationships, and as a result the advancement of their networks.
A connects B and C, and D and C.
By this representation, A sees C as a key person to know because she may have insight, or access to resources, or new knowledge that B and D do not have. More importantly A wants her friends B and D to be connected with her to C who is a powerhouse in networking. Relationships matter more than just one to one, but throughout a network.
J connects C and L, L and K, and E and I.
J is performing a second task of networking. He is connect two networks together. The network whose hub is E is now connected through J to a network whose hub is really C, not A. A is a connecting agent, but it is C who becomes the person who manages the network.
E connects I and G, G and F, D and J, and H and I.
E through his connections has created a new network, possibly creating a team who comes together, E had a relationship F, G, and H. E through J’s introduction of E to I, leads to I joining E’s new network.
Keep looking at the diagram.
Look at D.
He is someone who is now connected to all the major connectors, A, C, J, and E. He has access to the whole of this combined network knowledge and resources. Now D has to decide what is he going to do with his newfound connectedness.
Embedded in this network picture are opportunities for everyone. The diagram is static. But the relationships are dynamic.
Look at B. He is an outlier.
Yet, with a couple of introductions, B may find that he and G are ancestrally connected. They share a common great, great-grandmother. All of a sudden B is having questions about his family answered that have been with him all his life.
This may look confusing. However, if you follow the color pattern you can see how the Structural Holes are Bridged (Green) by completing the linkage missing where Current Connections (Orange) are.
Let’s Apply this Picture, Right Now
Write the names of five people that you know well. Ask them to introduce you to someone that they think you should know. Set up a time for coffee for the three of you to meet. Those friends may share an interest in common with each other that your conversation invites you to become a participant and a contributor. It is at this point that you can ask, “Who do I know that I think you should know, and would you like me to introduce you?” This is how networks form and grow.
Diagram 4: Three Levels of Network of Relationships
Two decades ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a very popular book called The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. In the book, he writes about our connections to people. One of the ideas related to these connections is the degree of separation that distinguishes our networks. He describes a game that was popular late in the last century called, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”
“The idea behind the game is to try to link any actor or actress, through the movies they’ve been in, to the actor Kevin Back in less than six steps. … computer scientist … Brett Tjaden … figured out what the average Bacon number is for the quarter million or so actors and actresses who have played in television films or major motion pictures and came up with 2.8312 steps. Anyone who has ever acted, in other words, can be linked to Bacon in an average under three steps. … Tjaden then went back and performed a more heroic calculation, figuring out what the average degree of connectedness was for everyone who had ever acted in Hollywood. … Tjaden found that when he listed all Hollywood actors in order of their “connectedness,” Bacon ranked only 669th. Martin Sheen, by contrast, can be connected to every other actor in 2.63681 steps … The best-connected actor of all time? Rod Steiger.”
The three degrees of separation that Gladwell writes about are pictured in the diagram. The Orange level is our current relationships. The Green level is new connections. And the Blue level is people who are potential connections for us because they know people that we already know.
In other words, you can easily expand your network by asking each of your friends or family, “Who do you know that you think I should know, and would you introduce me.”
Expand it by one degree by asking the same question to the five friends from the example above. When you are asking to be introduced to someone, you are saying to your friend I trust you and value your recommendation.
How Relationships Function in a Network of Relationships
All our relationships should be marked by respect and trust, with shared benefit and accountability. It doesn’t mean that we are going to hang out together every day. It means that we will be a person in a relationship with other people that are not exploiting or taking advantage of them. We all want relationships of dignity, respect, and trust. Yet, we see in the world the exact opposite. While, it seems that having small, closed networks is the safe thing to do. It isn’t. It blinds us to those who are looking for vulnerable people to exploit. Expanding your Network of Relationships presents a broader perspective on the world. As a result, you are better prepared to adapt to the dramatic changes that keep coming at us.
These kinds of relationships are what we want in our communities, in our nation, and throughout the world. We can only make that happen by being the kind of person in our relationships that people turn to because we are not only trustworthy people, but we have expertise that is valuable to others.
Our networks are not like dating apps. They are rather how society should operate in the best interest of all. We’ll expand our perspective of these networks in Part Two.