Image source: Harvard Business Review

1.  Social Butterflies

“Your network is your net worth”. This is what any successful person will tell you when asked how to move one’s career forth or how to expand a business. And there is nothing surprising about that. Studies show that the best jobs are not always advertised and that, in fact, a whopping 85% of all jobs are secured through networking. But as simple as it may seem, this is one of the most underrated and underused skills, mainly because of misconceptions about networking strategies and ethical underpinnings.

In a 1998 ground-breaking study of innovations in science, art, and philosophy, University of Pennsylvania’s sociologist Randall Collins proved that breakthroughs of great thinkers and artists of human history such as Freud, Picasso, Watson and Crick, and Pythagoras were the products of individual creativity enhanced by a fertile network. In effect, Collins identified only three exceptions to this rule: Taoist metaphysician Wang Chung, Zen spiritualist Bassui Tokusho, and the Arabic philosopher Ibn Khaldun.

As an art of building alliances and forging bonds, networking is a critical skill for employees in all jobs and at all levels. Some go as far as to say that “it’s not what you know, but rather whom you know.” This is not entirely accurate, though – knowledge and skills are equally important for a job success -, but there is some truth to this maxim.

Networking can be a hindrance for some people who don’t feel like passing business cards to groups of strangers or forcing social interaction, for that matter. But there is more to networking than that, and, done intelligently, it can cater to all types of people. Either preferring networking one-to-one or in large groups, face-to-face, or remote, you must always focus on the content and quality of interaction. Essentially, networking should be about getting to know other people and allowing them to know you.

There are numerous roles people in your network can fill:

  • Provide perspective;
  • Support your efforts;
  • Aid in solving difficult problems;
  • Provide insights on new opportunities;
  • Celebrate your achievements;
  • Offer valuable feedback;
  • Help you fight stress.

Your network should extend to people with connections beyond your reach but who can help you in different endeavours, such as:

  • People with the technical knowledge you need;
  • People with business acumen;
  • People with organisational skills;
  • People accustomed to KYC methods;
  • People with a background different than yours (be it cultural, age pool, educational or occupational, etc.).

Building your network is no easy task, but it can become so if you follow some basic steps:

  • Attend meetings and events to meet new people;
  • Join an online network, such as LinkedIn, Fast Company Community of Friends, Facebook, Twitter, and Yahoo Groups;
  • Make an effort to know the colleagues in your department and at your workplace;
  • Hang out with your colleagues during lunch or coffee breaks;
  • Work in cross-functional or multi-department teams;
  • Attend training and workshops;
  • Volunteer to work on projects that are in your area of expertise;
  • Create or join communities.

Online social networking combines conventional networking with the power of the Internet: it brings virtual contacts, people you would’ve had difficulties meeting in real life, at your fingertip. There are also certain advantages of online networking:

  • The spectrum of topics available at once is virtually infinite;
  • Your network may expand exponentially;
  • Response time is drastically reduced.

When networking online, you should keep certain aspects in mind:

  • Initiate widely, but continue selectively: reach to many people but follow up with the most promising ones;
  • Use your real name and a professional photo;
  • Follow standard business etiquette;
  • Design an email signature so that people know how to reach you;
  • Make sure you understand the privacy settings of the online tools you use in order to protect your privacy.

In this article, I will touch upon the following:

  1. Networking and Lawyering
  2. How to Diagnose Your Network
  3. Networking Strategies
  4. Networking as a Two-Way Street: Takeaways

2.   Networking and Lawyering

Networks encapsulate three key features: private information, access to diverse skill sets, and power.

When making decisions, people use both public and private information. Public information is readily available nowadays from a variety of sources, especially the Internet. It is precisely that phenomenon that lowers the value of widely-available information.

By contrast, private information is usually obtained from direct personal contacts who can offer valuable insider-only details such as release or publication dates, distinct procedures, promotion plans, strategies, etc. However, not being in the public domain means that the information has not been peer-reviewed. Private information can give everyone an edge (especially leaders and executives). That is why the value of both your private info to others and of other’s confidential info to you depends greatly on how much trust that network upholds.

Another advantage of a varied network is access to a full array of diverse skill sets. Linus Pauling, a member of a very select group of few to have won a Nobel Prize in two different areas, confessed that his success is not due so much to his immense brainpower (which he undoubtedly had plenty of) but to his varied cluster of mixed contacts. True, expertise has become increasingly specialised for the past decade. But areas such as organisational, product, and project management imply multidisciplinarity and the ability to surpass natural skill limitations through others’ help. This relation is two-directional: when you trade information or skills with people who have assets you need, you all exchange unique and valued resources.

The final asset of a well-balanced network is power. As a rule, executive power was enshrined into a firm (including law firm) hierarchy. But when the corporate organisation lost its pyramid-shaped layout, the power pole has been repositioned from the top to the network’s information brokers. Their job was to adjust to changes, develop client relationships, and promote the enterprise. These brokers aren’t necessarily high up the corporate ladder or experts in their field, for that matter, but have the vital role of linking specialists within the firm and of disseminating useful information.

Usually, personal networks are significantly clustered – an individual’s friends are probably friends with one another. This model is replicated at the corporate level. Brokers’ role is to connect the separate clusters and stimulate cooperation among otherwise independent experts.

A study on 165 lawyers at a prominent North American law firm revealed that lawyers’ success depended on their ability to engage in networking both internally within the firm (to obtain access to specific projects) as well as externally (as a client development activity). It turns out, those who disregarded or avoided such activities had fewer billable hours than their social butterflies peers.

Social interaction goes as far as influencing decision making and learning processes. A study at University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE) in Germany proved that there is, in fact, an “integrated brain network supporting social influence in human decision-making.”

Many studies show that aversion to networking can be overcome, and networking abilities can be trained. In fact, there are actual strategies to help shift people’s mindset. Before diving into these, let’s first discuss the methods of diagnosing your social network.


3.   Diagnose Your Network

Use a worksheet such as the one below, designed by Brian Uzzi of Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University:

This map will help you not only determine your network type but also discover the influence some networking practices might have on your network.

You are to introduce your network’s most important contacts in the left column – people you count on for private information, inspiration, and specialised expertise. Whomever the contact may be, keep in mind the resources you exchange with that person and your connection’s stability.

Step number 2: think of how you first met your connections. In the central column, identify the person who introduced you to your contacts. If you met the person yourself, then simply note “me.” This column’s role is to reveal the brokers in your network and allow you to observe the networking patterns. In our case, Tony S. is a super connector.

Lastly, in the right column, write the name of the people you introduced to your contacts. This will show how good of a social broker you are to others.

When finishing the filling in part, identify how many times does “me” appear in the central column. Relevant studies suggest that introducing yourself as your key broker in more than 65% of the cases indicates that your network is too inbred and built upon the self-similarity principle. When making contacts, the self-similarity principle activates your natural tendency to choose people similar to you in terms of experience, background, opinions, etc. While this tendency is mostly applicable to executives, it is not limited to them. Choosing someone who views the world through the same lenses as you might be useful in helping you find solutions consistent with your values, communicate swiftly, and collaborate seamlessly. Truth be told, like-minded people are less likely to challenge your opinion.

But there is a catch: extreme similarity hampers your access to diverse information and constructive criticism, which are key triggers for creativity and comprehensive problem-solving. If your peers embrace the same opinions as you, who will question your reasoning or push the endeavour forth? And since it’s human nature to introduce your contacts to one another and even bond friendships, the group will be infused with similarities to the point of becoming an echo chamber.

The self-similarity principle is at work even when we strive to avoid it. A 2002 study conducted by Columbia University management professors Paul Ingram and Michael W. Morris revealed striking results concerning executives’ tendency to succumb to this principle. One hundred well-accomplished executives were invited to a “business mixer” event to make new contacts and reinforce existing ones. The attendees wore a hidden electronic device that recorded whom they interacted with and for how long. Prior to the event, the executives had undertaken a survey that overwhelmingly proved their intention to meet as many people as possible.  In the end, however, people winded up connecting to people similar to them in terms of background and expertise. In fact, the most successful networker that evening was the bartender.

The self-similarity principle is not the only one high jacking our networking strategies.

The proximity principle also influences our social interactions by pushing us towards the people we spend most of our time with, such as colleagues in our department, peers in our regular social inner circles, etc. This is also a natural, evolution-rooted tendency of preferring and trusting those closest to us.

But both self-similarity and proximity principles create a social comfort zone that, in the end, hampers our personal and professional development. Accordingly, we end up building echo chambers that make diversifying our network even harder. This is precisely why understanding the importance of a varied network can significantly benefit you both professionally and personally.


4.   Networking Strategies

As mentioned above, networking abilities can be taught and exercised. All you need is the right guidance and a high degree of self-awareness. Here are some strategies for you to consider:

4.1. Focus on Learning

People usually have a dominant motivational focus, which psychologists identify as either “promotion” or “prevention” focus. Those in the former category are more likely to take chances, seize opportunities, seek many alternatives, and excel at creativity and innovation; they look to networking through growth and accomplishment lenses. People in the second category, though, perceive goals as opportunities to meet their responsibilities, are vigilant and cautious to the point of thinking about all that has to be done for something not to go wrong; for them, networking is a responsibility rather than pleasure.

Experiments conducted in the US and Italy on students, professionals, and additional 174 lawyers tried to determine the repercussions of both types of thinking. Unsurprisingly, promotion-focused people engaged in networking willingly and excitedly, approaching the events with an open mind. Prevention-focused people considered networking as an unpleasant necessity; feeling inauthentic and forced into this uncomfortable experience, they skipped it as much as possible, which, in turn, took a toll on their performance.

But all is not that grim. As Stanford University’s Carol Dweck proved, any mindset can be shifted, which means previously networking-averse people can become social butterflies. No-one says shifting at 180 degrees is a cakewalk. In the end, it’s all about setting priorities. But if you find networking to be useful, focus on the pros: the boost this will give to your skills, professional life, and career satisfaction.


4.2 Identify Common Interests

Let’s level up the networking game a bit: once you decide to trust networking, think of how you can align with your contacts and to what extent your network can benefit your plans. Northwestern University’s Brian Uzzi calls this “the shared activities principle.”

Potent networks are not forged through casual interactions but through relatively high-stakes activities that connect you with diverse others,” he contends.

What is more, studies in social psychology have proven that people tend to create the most significant and deep-rooted relations when working together on tasks requiring a team’s effort. In fact, a 2014 study confirmed that “task interdependence” can bring positive energy in a professional setup.


4.3 Think Broadly About What You Can Give

The social and corporate status strongly determines the willingness and openness in finding common ground with some stranger: juniors in an organisation, members of minorities, newcomers often believe that they have too little to offer and feel that networking is cheating, a fraud, or, in any event, uncomfortable. Surprisingly, they would benefit the most from this endeavour.

This was observed in two studies conducted at an American law firm. During the research, it transpired that senior people were usually more comfortable and felt that networking was authentic and beneficial to all. The explanation is simple: if people consider they have something to offer to others, from useful information, wise advice, mentorship, resources, etc., networking feels genuine and less selfish.

Another experiment expanded and confirmed these findings. People in whom researchers induced feelings of power felt networking less repulsive. They were willing to engage in social interaction to a greater extent than the ones that felt (or were made to fell) powerless.

But each of us can bring valuable assets to the table. Even the juniors, with less power in the hierarchy, have something to offer to the group. For example, younger people are usually better informed than their senior colleagues about generational trends, technology, and the general zeitgeist. When considering what you can give others more than what others can give you, networking will appear more selfless, genuine and worth exploring.


4.4 Find a Higher Purpose

An additional trigger that influences people’s interest in networking resides in the main scope they pursue. A study focusing on the same American law firm proved that attorneys who acknowledged the collective benefits of making connections (such as supporting the firm or helping the clients) rather than the personal ones felt more genuine, selfless, and ethically correct. As a result, they were more likely to engage in networking activities and had more billable hours.

Any activity that is attached to a higher, ethically-admissible goal becomes more attractive. It is up to you to design your network using these terms.


5.   Networking as a Two-Way Street: Takeaways

Here are some takeaways based on the ideas above:

  1. Base your networks on trust, diversity, and brokerage. This way, you will upgrade your level of information from what you know to whom you know.
  2. Use your know-how to benefit your connections and use your connections to help your clients and peers. This way, networking will be more than a self-benefiting tool but rather a method to build long-lasting mutually beneficial relationships. In time, this network will expand to include connections of your connections, in an overall movement towards diversity and comprehensiveness.
  3. Put your relationships to work: connect with as many people within the field as possible. This way, an ever-expanding niche network will emerge. But limiting to your professional network would be a mistake. Instead, try networking laterally, vertically, and horizontally and take advantage of the grapevine effect: valuable information can sometimes come from places you least expect.
  4. Remember: you needn’t be an excessively outgoing person to frame your network. Making a bare effort to ask a question, connect (with) people, share relevant information are well-suited actions to engage, preserve, and nourish your network. Always remember the four “ups” when networking: read up, show up, listen up, and follow up!

Do you find networking burdensome or is relationship building like a second nature to you? Drop us a line and let’s discuss!


This post is a part of the series called #FutureProofLegal in which we describe the skills and roles/jobs that future legal professionals (lawyers and beyond) shall acquire. To learn more or read other articles in the series go to our #FutureProofLegal page

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