In search of the future, 6 pointers to build a strategic network

Have you ever wondered why you are the one who seeks out people outside your own field and industry? Or maybe you accept people’s invitations but aren’t initiating and wonder why anyone bothers? Each of our networks has a function. A strategic network made of diverse perspectives from sectors, fields and industries outside our own is useful to recognize the opportunities and concerns others are facing that may shape our own future direction in the marketplace. We gather information and support outside our regular networks to make linkages for the achievement of results where we are. It’s a strategy that more people could adopt.

Even so, many leaders consult only their personal and operational networks and build the future from there, without a differentiated network to pick up trends and pursue fresh thinking.  I had a conversation with a senior executive, a former client, to learn what she does to build her strategic network. She is a service-minded leader working in the justice system with a background in the health and not for profit sectors. (I’ve withheld her name because of the sensitivity of her role) You too may want to build a strategic network with a focus on the future, but how? Here are 6 pointers that can get you started.

Accept invitations for mutually beneficial exchanges.

No small part of leadership is inventing strategies to address change. Information from people with whom you and your team don’t share a common background or business with can be helpful so to start off, show interest and accept others’ invitations. “I receive email requests and cold calls from people far outside my division who I don’t know. No matter why they reach out or what level they are, I am happy to meet. My view is that when you get into a leadership role, part of the job is to look around for mutual learning to happen.”

Have a hard focus on benefits, and a soft focus on a specific goal.

Contrary to most people’s advice of setting a specific goal of exactly what you hope to get and then driving the conversation there, I have found that a more naturalistic approach is more valuable to building new relationships. Instead, seek first to find something to offer or where there are commonalities or complementaries. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set out recognizing what value is possible. Here’s a short list of potential benefits:

  • Spot emerging trends
  • Get input for a strategic direction
  • Learn from how others faced challenges
  • Innovate with fresh ways of doing things
  • Repurpose what others have done to bring about something new

Seek linkages and keep going.

Some people are receptive to meeting new people and being exposed to significantly new ideas that challenge their thinking, and others are less so. I can’t promise that each relationship will be rich in learning but the laws of probability can work for you. The more you reach out and introduce yourself with the aim of building mutually satisfying relationships, the more likely you will find those who offer formidable value unavailable in your birds-of-a-feather networks. Be patient, accept invitations and introduce yourself.

Take the leap and leverage your connections.

For some time years ago this same leader who was then a junior executive rode the commuter train and regularly exchanged pleasantries with a senior executive. It wasn’t until she heard that he was about to retire that she pushed herself forward with the request for career advice. We know that women can often be great relationship builders but don’t always leverage who we know to get what we need.

“I knew I had to do this, and yes, it was scary. I was a Director then and I wanted to move up in my career. One day on the way to work I talked about my career desires and asked this senior executive questions. He offered terrific advice about broadening my network and investing further in my education, both of which I have done and continue to do. I also followed up on 3 names he gave me and that made it easier to contact those strangers.”

Join a diverse group.

It may be an obvious strategy but this senior executive explained that by joining enterprise-wide groups she expanded her network to include new people in different businesses. She chose mental health as something she cared deeply about and joined a diverse group of participants. “Five out of 7 members I didn’t know. My personal goal, aside from advancing the objectives of the group, is to develop stronger connections with the members of that group.” As she learns more about each of the group members, her plan is to connect with them on other concerns and interests, folding them into her strategic network to gain foresight about how what they are dealing with is applicable to what she is facing.

Take a bold lead.

Near the end of our time together, she turned the tables to ask me a question about why it is that she is the one who mostly reaches out to others at her level outside her business. She went on to say that people always accept her invitations, but only she initiates. I offered what I know from my experience having coached executives for over 22 years. It’s because this leader has prioritized mutual learning with others and extended her view far outside so that she can gain a view to the future, whereas others she meets aren’t as proactive. There is so much to gain by looking beyond our borders to learn from what others are doing. Great leaps of thinking are possible in a social context when we are prompted to think divergently. Surprising connections facilitate new ideas.


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