Innovative Leaders Cultivate Diverse Networks

Networks are important to success as a leader, but what do high-performing networks look like? The secret is having a non-insular network—one that encompass a diversity of perspectives, values and expertise.

By Rob Cross September 21, 2021
Innovative Leaders Cultivate Diverse Networks

​Leaders say they recognize that networks are critical to success, but they do nothing to help clarify what a good network looks like or how successful people create their network connections.

This lack of helpful specificity is not just the domain of organizations. Look at today's social technologies and online platforms: They offer rapid means to connect and collaborate with a dizzying array of people, but what does good networking look like?

What do high performers do? What network strategies distinguish the people who stay for years in their jobs from those who run into trouble and leave early? What aspects of connectivity distinguish those who are happy and sustainable in their careers?

Network Diversity

The starting point for answering these questions is the pioneering work of Ron Burt, who showed that people with non-insular networks—those that encompass a diversity of perspectives, values and expertise—are more successful. These structurally diverse networks often bridge expertise domains, cultures, geographical regions, functional areas and other pockets of mastery and opinion. Interactions with people who are in different clusters of a network enable us to see problems and opportunities in novel ways.

Burt's work showed that people who build these kinds of networks are promoted more rapidly. Other researchers have shown that non-insular networks are associated with higher pay and greater career mobility. My own work in the Connected Commons across several hundred organizations has consistently found that non-insular networks predict higher individual performance.

The idea can be understood through playing the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and comparing Bacon with an actor such as Jim Carrey. Bacon turns out to be a well-connected actor in the movie universe not so much because of the number of films he has been in as the number of genres. Whereas Carrey and most other actors stay within one or two genres, Bacon has appeared in many more, and it is the bridging ties across genres—or clusters in the network—that make him central in the movie universe.

As leaders evolve, if they allow their meetings, email distribution lists and workflows to excessively involve the same people over and over, they tend to become insular and less innovative in their work.

Despite clear evidence that diverse networks work, people struggle to figure out how to build them. Leaders ask: Should you continually network with people outside your circle? Do certain relationships matter more than others? Probably the most common questions I get about this are: Does it really make sense to spend time building a structurally diverse network? Doesn't the specific work I'm doing determine which people I need to interact with?

The Wisdom of the Trenches

Traditional guidance too often centers on how to use connections to find a job, get venture funding or sell a product or service. All of that is important, to be sure. But the kind of networking that generates a large volume of surface-level interactions so you can get a job, or hustle up funds or prospects, is not reflective of the ways more successful people in my research initiated and leveraged networks to deliver career-defining accomplishments.

In particular, quantitative research from the Connected Commons shows that if you want to be successful, a bigger network is typically not better. This is a striking finding, especially given the number of companies that take pride in encouraging their employees to build large networks and the number of self-help books on networking that start with the central premise that a big network is a good one.

True, in transactional fields such as residential real estate, network size does make a difference. But, generally, it is not the critical factor distinguishing satisfied, thriving high performers from other people in their organizations. Managing a big, sprawling network is time consuming, and that time sink can actually end up generating collaboration overload and hurting performance.

Another surprising discovery was that very few of the successful people I studied followed the classic advice to intentionally create structurally diverse networks. Despite the demonstrated links between network diversity and achievement, there just wasn't a lot of proactive development of these networks by, for example, stocking networks with assets such as brokers who can link to disparate groups. But these people did create network diversity in very interesting ways across planning horizons and work demands.

The reality in organizations, I found, is that successful people do network—constantly—but not "by the book." They network intuitively, reflexively and in unique ways that respond to immediate opportunities, while also cultivating connections over the long term that create future possibilities.

They make a leap of faith, letting go of control, embracing ambiguity and reaching out early—actions that may at times expose them to ridicule but that lead to the development of diverse networks, which in turn create the conditions for outstanding success.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Adapted from Beyond Collaboration Overload: How to Work Smarter, Get Ahead, and Restore Your Well-Being by Rob Cross. Copyright 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved. 

Rob Cross is the Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College, cofounder and Research Director of the Connected Commons business consortium, and author of Beyond Collaboration Overload: How to Work Smarter, Get Ahead, and Restore Your Well-Being.


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