Photo: JD Hancock via Flickr
While it’s useful to cultivate an extensive network of professional contacts, it’s even more beneficial to develop a strong, tight-knit, inner circle of individuals, each of whom fulfills a specific role. Think of them as your personal board of directors—a carefully curated collection of leaders you consult for the multifaceted mix of advice, feedback, and support they provide. Just as companies take great care in selecting their corporate board members, so should you.
At a recent Women in Computing conference, I spoke to Nehal Mehta, Global Alliance Director with Veritas Technologies LLC. Mehta’s inner circle is not only a diverse group of leaders, influencers, and corporate heavy hitters, they also inspire, challenge, and motivate her to make bold moves.
But if you work in a medium- to large-sized organization, there are hundreds, possibly thousands of people to join forces with. Not sure where to start? To maximize your time while expanding your network, start with these three types of people.
1. The Connector who makes introductions and helps you to grow your network.
A connector is a true “people person,” one who seems to know—and have great relationships with—just about everyone. They are at ease around others and put others at ease. If you’re taking tentative steps toward networking strategically for the first time, look for a connector first, because they love bringing people together. Connectors thrive on opening doors, making introductions, and helping you grow your network. Is there someone you know who can’t resist introducing you to the right people? Consider him or her for the role of connector. Once you identify the person, share your interests, and describe the types of people you’re interested in meeting. When you ask a question, you can expect a connector to link you to two or three others who know the answer.
Connectors are also at the hub of thriving professional networks. “How many LinkedIn connections or Twitter followers do they have?” Mehta encourages you to assess. “For example, many people working in talent acquisition are good connectors,” she says. And pay attention to who is organizing well-attended events at work. Then, ask for help making a new connection. Chances are they’ll be energized by the request, and if so, you may have found your connector.
“Do your homework before asking them to make a connection,” says Mehta. Build credibility first, and be specific with your request. “Connectors get energized by meeting people whose skills complement their own, so offer to give them something of value that is related to your area of expertise.” This could be an offer to help, share knowledge or introduce them to a new connection.
2. The Informational Powerhouse who keeps you current on the buzz in your organization and in the broader business environment.
This person always has his or her finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the organization and in the broader business environment. Seek out this individual when you need intel about new trends, ideas, projects, opportunities, resource re-allocations, and so on. Like curators of data, they filter useful business information from gossip – or just “noise” – from what’s relevant and useful. They also know about important changes before they occur.
According to Mehta, an informational powerhouse doesn’t necessarily need to be in a senior-level leadership role. “This individual usually has a breadth of knowledge and responsibility and can connect you with new projects and opportunities that will be beneficial for both parties,” she says.
It could be the knowledgeable colleague who everyone looks to for the final word in meetings because this person is so well-versed in how customers relate to your product. Or the colleague who’s acting as a bridge between cross-functional teams because his or her expertise spans across departments such as engineering, marketing, and finance. “It’s the person you follow on Twitter or whose blog you keep coming back to because the writing about your company or industry issues is so insightful,” says Mehta.
I asked Mehta for tips on strengthening relationships with informational powerhouses. “Let them know where your interests lie, and what you’d like to learn more about,” she said. “To give back to an information powerhouse, invite them to an external meetup or offer to connect them with other knowledgeable experts outside your company.”
Make sure you’ve got at least one informational powerhouse on your board. You may find it useful to identify several, each with different areas of expertise. By checking in with them frequently, you’ll deepen your understanding of the broader business environment, and find yourself making sound predictions and business decisions more confidently and rapidly.
3. The Influencer who helps you get things done in areas outside of your scope of influence.
This person makes things happen. If you need folks to get on board with a new idea or initiative, tap your influencer. They are not necessarily a high-level or high-profile leader; they are the change-makers who are interspersed at all levels of an organization.
“An influencer is someone who has earned the respect of the organization,” observes Mehta. “They can throw your name in the ring for a move to a different level or different project or provide an unsolicited reference.”
To identify influencers, pay attention to who has clout. The sources of that respect and influence may differ wildly. Some have positional power due to their seniority, but that’s rarely the only source of their influence. For some, influence is tied to a track record of exceptional achievements. For others, it’s their deep domain expertise or understanding of what customers really need. Or, it’s their ability to call out groupthink, resolve conflict, get a team fired up, or lead an entire organization through transformational change. Whatever the source of their influence, when they speak, people listen.
And how should you give back to an influencer? “Thank them with a nice bottle of wine!” quips Mehta, “But they will also appreciate acknowledgment.”
So, be on the lookout for those who are amplifying the voices of team members in meetings, advocating for their suggestions, and increasing the likelihood that those ideas are embraced and executed. And when teams get stuck, pay attention to who they automatically look to for direction. Think about who you’d like to have backing you up next time you encounter a roadblock, deliver a presentation, or submit a proposal. An influencer’s show of support can add to your credibility and clear the path forward.
Influencers have a way of eliciting agreement and collaboration from teams, and they can provide the heavy-hitting support that can guarantee the success of your initiatives. When an influencer lends his or her voice to your cause, it reduces skepticism and fortifies your credibility. And if you’re not sure how best to engage with other powerful stakeholders, seek counsel from your influencers. They can help you understand your stakeholders’ perspectives, how to engage them, and the best way to deliver your message.
Once you’ve identified an influencer, look for opportunities to work with them. Execute well, and then become an asset to them. “Volunteer for a stretch assignment to work with them,” advises Mehta. “This gets you acquainted and can enable that influencer to recommend you in future.”
Whether your objective is to advance your career, make a course correction, lead a major project, transform an organization, or make any type of bold, fearless move, having an influential inner circle can make the journey easier. Now that you know the criteria for developing an influential network, who will you add to yours?