Shortly before the release of Episode I: The Phantom Menace—the first in a second trilogy of Star Wars movies, my husband and a friend began collecting action figures produced during the era of the original Star Wars trilogy. This strategic investment in toys accumulated in a closet. When the kids entered the picture, he relocated the collection to higher ground. In order to protect his investment from curious little fingers that would damage the otherwise pristine packaging in a desperate attempt to reach the toy, he stashed the lot in the attic. The children are well aware of the collection. However, they’ve yet to figure out how to get into the attic. Every so often, in a fit of boredom, they’ll ask to see the toys. They’ve learned that touching them is out of the question! But perhaps a glimpse, just once, would be bestowed upon them. To date, not even on a rainy day, have they been granted access; for there is hope that someday, through the magic of eBay, the collection will be magically transformed into college tuition.
Over the years, I’ve met people who have an extensive network of contacts that they hoard like the toys in my attic. Others will reach out to these individuals hoping to access needed resources. They are turned away because the network “owner” is fearful of potentially damaging his collection of valuable relationships. It is a scarcity mentality. There is a misguided belief that if one taps into his or her network too frequently or at the wrong time, then all the “favors” will be used up just when they are needed most. Many a personal and professional network, rich in character and depth, lays dormant waiting for the right moment to be cashed in. The greatest flaw in this logic is the notion that we network and build relationships in order to accumulate a reservoir of resources and favors.
Although reciprocity is a vital channel through which social capital is exchanged, it should not be the purpose of networking but rather a by-product of time spent gaining and granting trust.
One of the most rewarding experiences is making valuable connections between people who have only you, the network “owner” in common. Ron Burt, University of Chicago Booth School of Business Hobart W. Williams Professor of Sociology and Strategy, describes the activity of connecting people within separate network clusters as filling “structural holes.” Positioning yourself as a hub in a diverse social network allows you to provide your contacts with tremendous value. Because people tend to move in predominantly homogenous circles (in terms of demographics, attitudes, geography, and common interests), individuals or groups who would profit from interacting are never given the chance. The person who can bridge the gap between these individuals or groups does everyone involved a great service. Malcolm Gladwell calls those in a hub role “Connectors.” In his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, he states, “The point about Connectors is that by having a foot in so many worlds, they have the effect of bringing them all together.”
Start by drawing out your network as a hub-and-spoke mind map. Visually laying out the various groups that make up your array of contacts helps you to see the structural holes. Once the gaps are identified, you can then set about introducing people and groups who could benefit from the connection. Bridging structural holes is a win-win-win scenario. The people you connect win because they have access to resources and ideas they could not necessarily obtain on their own. Professor Burt and others have shown that companies with people who bridge structural holes win because these organizations are better able to implement new ideas and new technologies, and are more innovative. The third win goes to the person making the connections. As you generously and appropriately engage your network to help others, you receive in return stock piles of the ingredients for influence. Effectively matching up individuals and groups boosts your credibility, demonstrates that you have the right intentions, and strengthens the trust bonds between you and the parties involved. In addition, Professor Burt has found that the number of structural holes a person bridges relates to career success, including promotions and salary, and provides a greater return on education and experience.
So, in homage to the late great JFK, when considering how to handle the relationships in which you’ve invested so much time…
Ask not what your network can do for you–ask what you can do for your network.