Ask almost any executive how they got to where they are, and the story will likely follow this formula:
hard work + luck + person who changed the trajectory of my career = where I am today
Our network, the relationships we build and maintain, is one of the biggest factors impacting our job, financial prospects, career progression, and even how we feel about the world around us. I’ve spent over a decade studying networks, from how they predict success to why they matter so much. Essentially, if your network is the biggest determinant in where you end up, intentionally shaping your network is the way to influence where you go and how quickly you get there.
In 2011 I started a company that analyzed large volumes of de-identified data to understand how work patterns correlate with business outcomes. We leveraged anonymized corporate email, meeting, and communications data merged with data systems like CRMs and surveys at companies with tens of thousands of people per company to explore. Eventually, my company was acquired by Microsoft and we experimented with even larger datasets encompassing thousands of companies, more than 100 million individuals, and trillions of data points.
Our analytics helped organizations answer questions like:
The data enabled us to examine how time was spent (e.g., how much time in meetings on topic X) and with whom. Many of our customers were focused on the time part of the equation with the view that time is money. However, the ‘with whom’ part was often far more interesting.
For example, while top performing sales reps spend more time with customers, the real gold was in understanding how many more relationships the reps built within each account and/or how they leveraged relationships within their own company to get deals done. Or, alternatively, while employees who get more time in 1:1s with their manager are likely to have higher engagement scores, employees who have internal networks that are larger than their direct manager are much less likely to view leadership favorably. There are countless similar examples. In most every case we examined, employees with larger, more diverse, and growing networks were more engaged, more productive, more likely to be promoted, less likely to leave their job, and happier.
Data shows that networks are an important predictor of success, but leaves open the question of why. In 2020 I started Round, a vetted community for senior technology leaders, and I’ve been exploring this with hundreds of members to understand how they think about their networks and the value they get out of them. While people may have an aversion to networking everyone has a network, whether you’re intentional about cultivating it or not. The executives we work with tend to think of their networks from the perspective of benefits, but a deeper look shows the impact of our networks is much more pervasive both positively and negatively. Here are 7 ways in which they impact our lives:
The school of life.
We spend our early lives pursuing formal education. For many people, investing in learning continues whether trade school, college, even on to graduate school. But what happens next? Does the curiosity evaporate? Not at all, the format simply changes. Once you get into the working world, people rely on their network to keep learning and growing. This learning takes the form of mentors who advise you, peers who provide motivation and coaching, and connections who quickly respond to questions in their areas of expertise. People who cultivate robust networks have access to endless learning and tremendous amounts of help that they can leverage whenever they need it. They also have people around them who challenge them to keep growing rather than just being cheerleaders.
Opportunities and a credible path to get there.
Our networks are our primary source of new opportunities. We rely heavily on our networks for introductions and exposure. According to some estimates, 70% of all jobs are not published on publicly available job sites and research has long shown that 50-80% of jobs are filled through networks. It’s not just jobs. Our network introduce us to inspiration, ideas, and give us a path to pursue them. From careers to life partners to setting up life in a new city or country, networks show us new options and help us access them.
Diverse perspectives and colliding ideas that empower innovation.
Plenty of research has shown the positive impact of broad networks as it relates to innovation within R&D organizations. Innovation is often accelerated by bringing together disparate ideas and engaging with a broad and diverse set of people is one of the best ways to increase exposure. This wisdom is true in our personal lives as well. The more we expose ourselves to different ways of thinking and engage with people on different paths, the higher the likelihood that we become inspired and see new ways forward with ourselves.
An accelerated path to where we want to go.
Relationships open doors that would otherwise be closed. Like landing on a ladder in a game of chutes and ladders, our networks can provide shortcuts that enable us to skip 10 steps ahead. For example, if you are applying for a new job and the hiring manager is someone you already have a positive relationship with, you may skip the early interview stages. Or, when you are planning a trip to a city you have never been to, you might have a friend you trust who can save you hours of research by recommending the things that she knows you would love to experience. In our earlier research on what differentiates the highest performing salespeople, one finding was that they maintained great relationships with senior management and legal, which enabled them to escalate issues and get contracts completed much more quickly than their peers. Unfortunately, shortcuts like these are also a big way in which biases are embedded and only “in-groups” have access, preventing “out-groups” from being able to succeed at the same rates. In any case, shortcuts are powerful tools that can only be accumulated and leveraged via our networks.
A support system for when something inevitably goes wrong.
A strong network provides confidence that when something goes wrong in life, you will be ok. Having a responsive network that cares about and will help you through tough times is like personal insurance. This example might feel particularly relevant to the more than 240,000 tech workers who have unexpectedly lost their jobs in 2023. Having a network to turn to who can help introduce you to new people, share opportunities, or even re-hire you increases your resilience. Relationships like this are downside protection for life. They provide support structures that reduce anxiety and enable you to take bigger risks in pursuit of your goals.
The impact the people around us have on our physical and mental health
Before Covid, most people didn’t think that much about social health. Then, when our social interactions were reduced to pods of people and purely intentional interactions, we took notice that something was missing. While this effect has been studied in academia for over 80 years, the isolating experience of Covid-19 and the lasting impact it continues to have on social interactions brought the conversation to the surface.
Cultivating and maintaining deep relationships is critical to our overall health. Whether deep, lifelong relationships or fleeting interactions with people, moments of being seen by others energize us. Our networks help meet our social needs. In a world of hybrid and remote work, managing one’s social health with intention is more important than ever. Similar to the food we consume, the tone and quality of these interactions can be tremendously positive or quite negative.
A force that pulls and pushes us to a point of equilibrium with those around us.
Our relationships, past and present, create the primary lens through which we view the world. It’s not simply that we tend to receive news and new information through similar sources as our social groups (though the algorithms that push news at us work hard to ensure that we do), it’s more that the way we interpret new information Is heavily influenced by the people around us. It’s like peer-pressure without the negative connotation. Our networks influence our sense of right and wrong, our likelihood to meet our goals, and even our sense of self.
One of the most potent examples is in research on the impact of social support on people dealing with addiction. Whether we like it or not, the people we surround ourselves with, physically and digitally, have a tremendous impact on almost every aspect of our lives.
There is a strong argument that our networks and the people we spend our time with are the single most important predictor of how our careers and lives will unfold – our success, our opportunities, our happiness, everything. This impact happens whether we want it or are even aware of it.
It stands to reason that we should all be investing heavily in cultivating a healthy network, but most of us don’t. The truth is that it’s not easy to intentionally build a great network and there are fewer and fewer built-in opportunities to build real relationships with new groups of people as we advance in our careers and lives.
At Round the company I founded in 2020, we bring together world-class tech leaders who are excited to connect, learn, and gain new perspective from peers who truly understand. The experience we’ve designed supports leaders who want to invest in their network as a tool to build the career and life they want. When we build our networks with intention, they become a catalyst to realizing our potential. We truly are who we spend our time with. We often can’t change the influence specific people have on us, but we can change who we surround ourselves with.
Whether or not you take advantage of communities like Round that can help, I heartily recommend that everyone spend more time envisioning the life and career they want, imagine who they’d be spending time with and then devise a path to go meet those people and get started. This will be time well spent.
Our network, the relationships we build and maintain, is one of the biggest factors impacting our job, financial prospects, career progression, and even how we feel about the world around us.
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