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What you didn’t know about networking

Book Review: Cooperation, collaboration mean more than ever—how to get it right

Strategic Connections: The New Face Of Networking In A Collaborative World. By Anne Baber, Lynne Waymon, André Alphonso, and Jim Wylde. American Management Association, 229 pp. Strategic Connections: The New Face Of Networking In A Collaborative World. By Anne Baber, Lynne Waymon, André Alphonso, and Jim Wylde. American Management Association, 229 pp.

In today’s highly connected world, few business tasks can be accomplished alone. The work of teams, colleagues, and business partners—both inside and ever more frequently, outside your firm—propels organizations forward. Each of us serves as part of multiple networks. The networks or relationships we’ve built play an important role in determining our ability to succeed.

Merely having a “strong” network isn’t enough. Our networks must continually evolve, to ensure that we have access to information, support, and the available opportunities we need to realize our goals and successfully address business or professional challenges.

The relationships which comprise networks don’t always sprout organically. Frequently, they take our concerted effort to start, to grow, and to maintain. And yet having the skills and abilities which allow for effective networking isn’t sufficient, either. A critical component of collaboration requires the development of trust.

How do you build that trust? How do you establish and cultivate networks given today’s pace of change? And do both in an environment in which we are more often communicating with others through digital channels?

This book works to answer those questions, and succeeds at much of that challenge.

Bringing about effective collaboration

Is the ability to collaborate an innate competency that some people possess? Or is it a skill which can be learned? Is there anything an organization can do to foster an environment which supports effective collaboration? 

I’ve heard such questions debated throughout my career.

Thanks to this welcome new book, Strategic Connections, folks in the “It can be learned” and “Organizations can create an environment conducive to productive collaboration” camps now have a roadmap for how that can be accomplished.

Throughout this book, the authors—collaborators themselves in an international consulting and training firm—provide a detailed guide for both individuals and companies and what it takes to get the most value from networking and the creative collaboration it enables.

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Why is this important?

“Interpersonal skills of collaboration” ranked as the most desired skill by 75% of the 1,700 CEOs queried in IBM’s 2012 Global CEO Study, as cited in Strategic Connections.

Collaboration by another name

Surveys aside, the importance of effective collaboration can be viewed daily, in every organization. If you’re in any way uncertain as to the importance or power of collaboration, reflect on colleagues or friends who’ve experienced professional success. Take a moment and think about significant accomplishments within your organization.

What was it about your colleague’s performance that led to their success? What did it take to realize that significant accomplishment?  In both cases, it was most likely the ability to leverage collaboration which made the difference.

In Strategic Connections, the authors contend that networking is the crucial first step in effective collaboration. This component of collaboration has previously been called “organizational navigation”—a.k.a., “office politics.”

Organizational navigation, politics, and even networking can sometimes carry a negative connotation.  Yet networking, information sharing, supporting others, and, yes, collaboration are how you build advocacy, structure coalitions, and mobilize constituent groups to achieve an objective.

As the authors correctly point out, it is when collaboration becomes only self-serving that collaboration gains a negative connotation.

What’s your “Networker Identity”?

The approach you take (or don’t take) is what the authors term your “Networker Identity.”

We all have a networker identity. I suspect most—myself included, until I read this book—have never taken the time to assess it. A survey conducted by the authors shows that only 20% of people are proficient networkers.

They suggest analyzing your attitudes on networking as a first step. Begin by asking the question “How do I feel about networking?” and recognizing your perceptions/beliefs about networking. For example;

• Do you rarely get anything out of networking events?

• Are you afraid that by asking for help, you’ll seem incompetent?

• Do you feel that networking is simply schmoozing or that networking is manipulative?

• Do you believe that your role precludes you from having to network?

The definition of networking put forth in this book: “The deliberate and discretionary process of creating, cultivating and capitalizing on trust-based, mutually beneficial relationships for individual and organizational success.”

The authors believe that effective networking can be learned and organizations can take actions which foster networking and the development of a more collaborative workplace.

“The Four Nets”: Class is in session

There are two things I especially liked about this book. The first is the approach taken by the authors—different from other works on networking and collaboration I have read. They have created a more tactical, actionable book for both individuals and companies.

In their textbook-like approach, the authors have provided detailed descriptions of the process of establishing and maintaining networks and have provided several valuable exercises.

One exercise I found especially interesting was in the evaluation of what the authors call the “Four Nets.” The Four Nets comprise the extent of your network, and thinking of your connections in this way, allows for a more strategic approach to developing and maintaining your network.

The Four Nets are:

ProNet—Professional contacts outside your organization.

LifeNet—Friends, family, leisure-time contacts

WorkNet—Everyone you work with, day-to-day, or periodically, to get your job done.

OrgNet—Contacts from other departments or business units in your organization.

Completing the “Four Net” exercise helped me realize that I had been viewing my network as a monolithic entity and hadn’t considered the value of strategically developing the Four Nets in support of my professional or life goals. I also recognized that, while I had many contacts identified in each Net, I didn’t truly understand the potential value from each, especially my LifeNet.

I also value the practical advice offered throughout the book. This is not an academic read, stuffed full of theory. This is a book designed to be used over-and-over and to become dog-eared as you refresh your approach.

An example of the practical advice contained in the book is the value of what the authors call “Choicepoints.” Choicepoints are the often informal, spontaneous opportunities to connect and converse that we all have.

From my own experience, capitalizing on these moments is invaluable in building  your brand and staying in the information flow (what the authors call “Scuttlebutt”). What I didn’t fully appreciate—and what the book advises—is that preparing for these supposedly chance encounters improves the likelihood that they will be mutually beneficial.

Guide to networking path

I recommend this book for anyone who wishes to improve their effectiveness in networking—even for those who believe they are already experts. It is full of helpful advice and exercises that even the most effective of networkers can employ.

My only wish was that the authors would have spent more time focusing on developing trust and building your network in today’s digital and distributive workforce environment. While it is true, as they note in the book, that face-to-face interactions are more productive, this is not always possible.

That aside, this is not just a helpful read. Strategic Connections is a book to keep on your desk as a reference for yourself and for those in leadership roles. It will help you realize the collaboration necessary to succeed.

Brian Higgins

Brian Higgins is first vice-president–digital, payments & innovation for First Financial Bank, a $8.7 billion-assets community bank headquartered in Cincinnati serving Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. He is a frequent contributor to www.bankingexchange.com. Since joining First Financial Bank in September 2012 Higgins has leveraged 20 years of financial services experience to bring a fresh perspective on the challenges faced by community banks. Previously Higgins worked for Vantiv Payment Solutions and Fidelity Investments, serving in a variety of roles in business leadership (Operations, Product, and Marketing) and strategic planning. Contact him at Brian.Higgins@bankatfirst.com
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