In this episode of our series, The World’s Most Interesting People, I sat down with David Burkus. David is a speaker, business school professor and the author of Friend of a Friend…Understand the Hidden Networks That Can Transform Your Life and Your Career
A study conducted by Ronald Burt found that executives who learn about network structures are 36 percent to 42 percent more likely to improve their performance and 42 percent to 74 percent more likely to be promoted.
What is a Network Structure?
According to David, tons of networking books out there give advice, but the problem with the advice is it simply focuses on acquiring more contacts.
The metric most people use to describe their network is how many contacts they have on LinkedIn or the number of addresses in their phone.
And while this can be important, this is just one element of a network structure. The key here is you are one person inside of a larger network.
“It should be your goal not to meet the most people as possible, but to understand who else is connected to whom and what the rest of the network looks like.” –David Burkus
In Burt’s study, he took a control group and an intervention group and trained the intervention group on an idea of “social capital.”
The premise of this idea is understanding not only who you’re connected to, but who else is connected to whom, as well as determining if you have the right diversity in your connections.
The result? The people who underwent this training did far better in their careers over time because they could see the value of the whole network, not just a Rolodex.
Homophily and Your Network
Homophily is the idea that “like begets like.” It can be helpful to find clusters of people in your same domain to run ideas by, but David reminds us that this is a give and take.
David says that when we surround ourselves with people who are so similar to us, we often can miss out on new information, novel ideas or a even different perspectives on how to see the world.
For example, in this current political climate in the United States, there is deep-rooted homophily between parties and people, which according to David can lead to breakdowns in communication community-wide if not kept in check.
David likens this idea to a ship in a harbor.
A harbor is a great location to pick up supplies, refuel and connect. But a ship is not made to stay in the harbor. You need the security of a harbor at times, but your destiny is the open sea, to meet diverse groups of people.
Be a Broker
We now know we have pools of homophily and these different clusters of groups because like attracts like.
Within these clusters of groups are what Burt refers to as “structural holes,” which can be filled by individuals to meld the different groups. The person who fills these holes is known as the broker.
The broker is the individual who spans the gap—the bridge over the river. It’s these individuals who find connections and opportunities across communities.
“The people that are brokers that span structural holes are at the highest risk of having good ideas.” –Ronald Burt
David puts it this way: “Brokers are seeing information from multiple communities and they play in multiple communities. The people who are stuck in their community experience a stronger pull of homophily and they look alike, think alike and often act alike. This creates more stagnation within the community and there’s not a lot of new ways of thinking or ideas.”
#1: Gather awareness regarding your communities. Explore and audit your network and see what communities and structures take shape. Are there ways to connect them? Can you be the broker?
#2: Write down the dozen people in your network you interact with most. Draw arrows between the people who know each other.
- If your list looks like a rat’s nest of arrows, it’s likely you’re sitting in the middle of a cluster with opportunities to broker out.
- If there’s only a few arrows between your top 12, you’re likely filling a structural hole—keep up the great work!
Champion Your Community
In his book, David shares another of Burt’s studies, where he interviewed 673 managers at a supply chain company. He asked each of them, “From your perspective, what is the one thing that you would change to improve the company’s supply chain management?”
Of the 673 answers, Burt recorded 455 new ideas. This is crazy, since you would expect most of the managers would have had the same solution!
Is there a way to probe your community for advice as a way to find holes or gaps?
According to David, communities often are in unanimous agreement regarding what the problem is, but the solutions are endless if you act as the broker and get ideas from both internal and external community audiences.
If everyone in the community is providing the same solution, it’s likely your community is not as diverse as you may think.
Action Step: Survey your community with a Facebook or Twitter poll. Reach out to your audience, ask a simple question and record the presented solutions. Is everyone giving the same advice, or do the solutions and choices vary? Diversity in solutions will give you a sense of the overall diversity of your community.
The Organizational Misfits
Adam Kleinbaum conducted a study of who moves up in an organization, who has the fastest career track, who gets promoted most often and who makes the most money.
Our expectation is that it’s the people who play the political game and who know how to work the career ladder that exhibit the above qualities.
In actuality, the people who get promoted the most often are actually the zig-zaggers. These are the individuals who are exploring different silos and often working cross-functionally. These are the organizational misfits. They’re called this because they don’t fit the typical trajectory of the corporate status quo.
Ironically, this isn’t the career trajectory that most of us are encouraged to have. David tells us that organizational misfits are able to make more connections and see the overall network of the organization far better than most ladder-climbers.
Action Step: Be an organizational misfit, starting now! Don’t wait to climb the ladder to the top to be moved around. Deliberately use your contexts and unique skillset to:
- Get coffee on another floor of the office to meet new people.
- Strike up a conversation with someone in a different department.
- Volunteer to be on a project on another team.
Okay. So, David has good news and bad news for us.
The bad news is not all networks are created equal. In certain groups, some people are WAY more connected to other people in the group compared to others.
Preferential attachment can be thought of as the gravitational pull those super-connectors have. If a new person comes into a group, the odds are higher that you’ll meet this person if you’re already well-connected within your group than if you’re not.
This is why it sometimes can be challenging to build traction while networking. The good news is that as you work on building your network, the gravitational pull over time will turn in your favor, and eventually networking gets a whole lot easier.
So easy sometimes that David has seen networkers shift from adding new connections to pruning current connections.
- Invite a smaller group of people (6-12); any smaller and it can be awkward, any bigger and people can’t get to know each other very well.
- Encourage your guests to be a part of a creative process, such as cooking dinner together. We as humans always have seemed to bond over food and there’s real power in breaking bread with others.
- Note: This is not speed-dating for professionals; this is time to slow down and have longer, more meaningful conversations.
As you do more of these events, the gravitational pull will take over. Now you’re more well-known across other networks. Win-win!
Bonus: Do a verbal conversation challenge with your guests. For example, challenge your guests to not talk about what they do. At the end of the night, bring everyone together to guess each other’s occupations. This is a great way to deepen the relationships and promote non-work related conversation.
Need some ideas? Here are David’s go-to convo starters:
- What’s the best thing that happened to you this year?
- Is there a charitable cause you support?
- What’s the most important thing I should know about you?
- Who is your favorite superhero?
Every connection you have is either a multiplex tie (meaning you have lots of different situations and contexts in which you see someone) or a uniplex tie (meaning you have one context, one reason you know someone).
Uniplex Connection: This person works two cubicles down from me.
Multiplex Connection: I work with this person. We went to the same elementary school. We attend the same church and we both play golf.
According to David, research shows that you have deeper relationships more quickly with people with whom you have multiplex ties. If you’re meeting someone in a work context, the uniplex tie is already obvious. This is why challenging yourself (and others) to ask non-work related questions is so important—you’re able to establish multiplex connections and similarities.
“You want to learn about the totality of them because you build a deeper connection faster.” –David Burkus
#1 Avoid social scripts. Break the habit of asking “What do you do?” Then you can discover latent ties upon initial encounters with new people.
#2 Go deeper with your current connections to bring out the multiplex ties. Make a list of 10 people you feel like you only know in one context. For example, if you have no idea what your connections do outside of work, it’s time to set a coffee or lunch date and ask them about what they do for fun, personal passions and hobbies.
When you have lots of things in common with someone, it’s easier to reach back out and reconnect since you have lots of touch points for similarities and interests.
David’s parting words of wisdom: The biggest thing is don’t feel overwhelmed but, at the same time, don’t delay starting. Use these tips and break them down into smaller, achievable goals. Make it a regular habit to partake in these challenges and begin growing your social capital.
“It’s kind of like an investment fund or a retirement account. You grow that social capital over time so when you need to extract the value, it’s there.” –David Burkus
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