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Friend of a friend . . .: Understanding the hidden networks that can transform your life and your career by David Burkus

Think about networking for a moment – what comes to mind? An insincere way to manipulate relationships for personal gain? How to work a room? How to make new connections online?

Professor Burkus’ book is not about this at all. Rather, this is a research-based book about how networks work and how to get more from your network.

Collecting s isn’t the sure-fire path to networking success. Rather, networking success is a function of knowing who your friends are and who their friends are, and how networks are structured. A better understanding of the community will lead to better odds that your network will enhance your success.

“A network is basically a set of people and the connections between those people,” the author explains. Like a computer network, it grows in value as the number of nodes and the number of connections grow.

The pluses of a powerful network

Being connected to a strong network provides major advantages that sociologists refer to as ‘social capital‘. Renowned sociologist Ronald Burt found that educating executives about network structures and principles led to a dramatic 36-42% improvements in their performance, compared to similarly qualified but untrained peers.

Others who were not in the executive suite but were similarly trained, were 42-74% more likely to be promoted.

Your training can begin with this book about how networks come together and how to build a powerful networking strategy. Each chapter ends with a quick activity to better understand your current network, or how to take the first steps to strengthen it.

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Here is the first piece of counterintuitive information: research proves that the biggest opportunities and best sources of new information come from “weak ties” or “dormant ties”, not “strong ties”.

“Strong ties” are the friends and co-workers we feel comfortable around, whom we know, like, and trust. “Weak ties” are people we don’t see often or haven’t spoken to in a long time. “Dormant ties” are a type of weak tie that used to be stronger – people whose very existence we have forgotten.

Maximising weak or dormant ties

When faced with a problem to solve, a choice to make, or the sudden need to find a job, we usually turn to friends, family members, and trusted colleagues.

As a PhD student, Stanford sociology Professor Granovetter conducted a study of job transitions. Counterintuitively, it demonstrated that our weak ties’ access to new sources of information, was more valuable than our strong ties’ motivation to help.

When his interviewees were asked if a friend had told them about their current job, it was revealed that they were predominantly not friends, but acquaintances whom only 17% said they saw often, over 55% saw occasionally, and over 27% saw rarely. 

Duke University professor, Martin Ruef, conducted a study of how entrepreneurs rely on strong and weak ties, and the effects on their ability to be innovative. He investigated 700 entrepreneurial teams who were launching new businesses and focused on the sources of their ideas. He found that those teams whose business ideas came from discussions with weak ties, were more innovative as judged by patents and trademark applications – which meant their ideas were likely more original.

“Our results suggest that entrepreneurs can avoid the pitfalls of conformity by diversifying their networks,” Ruef wrote of his findings.

Diversify your network

Researchers Daniel Levin, Jorge Walter, and Keith Murnighan have been studying the power of dormant ties for almost a decade. They have been surveying business executives, whom they encouraged to deliberately reactivate old connections. In one experiment, they asked 224 executives from four executive MBA classes to reconnect with two people to whom they had not spoken for at least three years, but who may have advice on a major work project they were working on.

One of these MBA s was someone with whom they had a strong tie relationship and one with whom they had a weak tie relationship, and then lost touch with both. The executives were also required to two current s – one strong and one weak.

Then the executives assessed all four s’ advice in terms of value.

The results showed that the advice from the dormant ties was more likely to be valuable than the advice from current connections. Additionally, the benefits were shown to have more to do with the dormancy of the ties themselves, than with the person’s perceived expertise.

A wealth of help

There are three main reasons for this. 

First, dormant ties can hold a wealth of new, different, and unexpected insights mainly because they have been interacting with different social circles and were having new experiences. The second reason was efficiency: the with dormant ties was much quicker than conversations with current colleagues. The third reason was that many dormant ties, unlike weak ties, were once stronger relationships, so their trust and motivation to help are much stronger than the motivation of current weak ties.

Our default is invariably towards people with whom we have had some relationship, even if that relationship is dormant. However, the weaker dormant ties gave much better advice when reactivated, which runs counter to a lot of our preferences and even some conventional networking beliefs.

Levin, Walter, and Murnighan’s work is an encouragement to consider old, dormant ties in our network before spending so much energy investing in new relationships.

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At the end of each section is practical advice. On this section the author suggests listing six to 10 work colleagues with whom you used to have a strong relationship but who have since fallen by the wayside. Then randomly select one person from the list and email or call with an invitation to a ‘catch up conversation‘ with no agenda, just to reconnect, in person or via phone call. Then make a note of these meetings and follow up anywhere you could help or might need help.

The book covers much more that is critical to your networking. For example, how the fact that there are fewer than ‘six degrees of separation’ between complete strangers that can be used, and how inter-departmental and inter-company teams work best and why, and so much more.

This book should be considered compulsory reading for anyone concerned about increasing their effectiveness through networking. No, networks don’t need to be created, they already exist. They only need to be understood so they can become greater sources for professional advantage both for you, as for the others in them.

Readability       Light –+– Serious

Insights                      High +—- Low

Practical           High –+– Low

  • Ian Mann of  consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of . Views expressed are his own.

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