It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know: The Power of Networks

February 27, 2013

As the saying goes, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. It’s true in the context of a job search; it’s true as professionals seek insights to solve their organization’s problems; and it’s true in your personal life (my neighbor called me the other day, looking for suggestions for squirrel removal). But it’s also true for organizations desiring to learn, improve, and grow. Networks – for individuals as well as enterprises – are fundamental for survival. They are critical for decision making, information flow, best practice sharing, and improvement. However, most networks are not adequately managed or cultivated, and therefore as sub-optimized…

Why is networking so important? At a biological level, animals rely on social networks to adapt and survive in their environments. That’s why wolves travel in packs, ants cluster in colonies, and fish live in schools. In the wild, “networks” offer greater protection from predators; the ability to share information, teach, and learn (that’s how momma bear prepares baby bear for the real world); better decision making; and a more systematic division of labor (the ants have perfected “divide and conquer”).

These concepts also apply to humans – we are definitely social creatures, even the most introverted among us! We live in communities and neighborhoods; we socialize for recreation; and we rely on our networks for professional and personal support. We network to find jobs, to find mates, to share ideas, to solve problems, to celebrate successes, and to seek support in times of crisis, failure, and despair.

Networks clearly have a role in our professional lives. For one, they facilitate the flow of information and therefore assist in better decision making. Have you ever picked up the phone and called a colleague, seeking advice on a problem you’re dealing with at work? Or, better yet, talked to three colleagues and compared notes on what worked and what didn’t in a similar situation in which they previous dealt? I’m sure you’d all agree that information disseminates easier (and faster) through networks than through formal structures (such as rigid organizational hierarchies). That’s why grapevines work. And that’s why social media is literally exploding today: it facilitates information flow at rates that are exponential as compared to other channels, allowing people to know more, faster.

Professional networks help people solve problems, get access to expertise and information, and build consensus on important decisions. In short, networks help successful professionals get work done – to get things accomplished.

As networks benefit individual professionals, they also benefit the organizations in which those professionals work – they facilitate better problem solving, better decision making, better sharing of best practices, better consensus building, and simply getting more work getting done, oftentimes faster.

So how can you harness the power of your networks – for personal, professional, and organizational gain? Here are four ideas offered by Steve Tobak in a recent article in Inc. (the list is his; the commentary is mine):

  • Segment your connections. Just as organizations segment their customers into similar groups so that products and services can be more precisely marketed and delivered, so too should you segment your network. Not all network contacts are equal. For example, you may (probably should) treat senior executives in your network differently than mid-level leaders and other professionals…they probably should be contacted less frequently and with crisp, focused messages. Think about the various groupings in your network, and adjust how you interact with these segments according to their unique needs.
  • Respect contacts as individuals. Everyone is busy these days – we’re all stretched with work pressures, personal commitments, and other demands on our time. As Tobak says, remember that network contacts are real relationships with real people. They have their own lives, their own stresses, their own demands. So respect your network: be sensitive to the frequency (and magnitude) of your requests. And view the relationship as a two-way street. Give to get; tit for tat. It doesn’t have to be completely equal all of the time, but always strive to give your network as much as you get out of them. Paying it forward with your network is a good rule to live by; they’ll be more apt to support you when you then need them.
  • Keep your network current. This may be one of the most challenging parts of networking, because people are so mobile these days – they change jobs; they change companies; they sometimes change industries; they move across town, across the state, or across the country. Do your best to keep up with your contacts, keeping your records current and your network fresh.
  • Make your network personal. As I mentioned before, professional (and personal) success is all about relationships. We are social creatures. People do business with people, and trust is foundational to long-term relationships. Social media is helping in facilitating information and knowledge exchange, but nothing replaces the good old fashion conversation – the face-to-face meeting, the occasional phone call, the personal touch of asking about someone’s kids, how their trip was, or how such-and-such project is going. In the words of Tobak: “one personal, face-to-face relationship is worth a thousand online ones.”

And – since networks are critical for organizations’ success as well – here are three good practices for organizations to consider:

  • Allow employees to network. This means allowing them to join associations, go to networking events, attend conferences and other forums for sharing knowledge – not just to learn and gain ideas to bring back to the organization, but also to build contacts and relationships that could eventually add value to the enterprise.
  • Give employees permission to use social media – LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and others – to establish and cultivate new connections. Don’t be too concerned if the line between personal and professional use is somewhat blurry. Indeed, set policies for use and be mindful of the risks involved, but also be aware of the power that these connections can bring – in terms of increased and quicker information flow, more responsiveness, better decision making.
  • Benchmark. I’m not talking industrial tourism here, but honest, systematic benchmarking where two (or more) organizations come together to share best practices on a specific process(es). Oftentimes insights come from completely out-of-industry connections. You may have heard the legendary example of Southwest Airlines benchmarking NASCAR pit crews so that they could drastically decrease the cycle time of their plane change-overs. Or a manufacturer of ammunition cartridges benchmarking Revlon to see if the engineering behind lipstick casing could translate to better bullet shells. Benchmarking is a form of organization-to-organization networking, and can lead to creative problem solving and innovation.

Most of you know that we changed our nonprofit corporate name last year from the Minnesota Council for Quality to the Performance Excellence Network (for a 2-minute video on the rationale, visit here). The shift from “quality” to “performance excellence” in our brand was intentional, as it more accurately describes our mission. But the addition of the word “network” in our name was equally deliberate: we are a network of over 300 organizations, representing over 150,000 leaders and professionals in dozens of communities across a three-state region. There is power in that network – in the knowledge, best practices, and connections brought on by a community of diverse enterprises all linked by a common goal of continuous improvement and performance excellence.

Much of our work involves facilitating the systematic sharing of ideas, best practices, knowledge, and resources across sectors, industries, and communities. We help leaders and professionals establish and cultivate relationships – a network – so that they can better exchange ideas, solve problems, and innovate. We offer frequent knowledge forums – monthly breakfasts, occasional workshops and conferences – to facilitate the systematic sharing of best practices. And we host Roundtables, professionally facilitated peer learning groups, where leaders and professionals work to share ideas and solve each others’ problems.

“Network” – as much as “performance excellence” – is at the heart of our mission. Check out our new website ( and/or come to one of our discussions to see how the power of our Network can help you professionally, personally.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a celebrated Harvard professor, recently tweeted (yes, in one of my virtual networks!): “The most radical thing we can do is introduce people to one another. New connections change the world.”

Want to participate in a discussion on this topic?? Visit our LinkedIn group and/or our blog our to post a comment!

Yours in Performance Excellence,

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network (formerly Minnesota Council for Quality)