How to Build a Diverse and Beneficial Network

How to Build a Diverse and Beneficial Network

Want to revitalize your network and expand your organization’s impact? Retired four-star General Stanley McChrystal developed his “Team of Teams” model while helming the nation’s premier military counter-terrorism force, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), from 2003 to 2008. His Alexandria, Virginia-based consulting firm, the McChrystal Group, now offers customized workshops and team-building for businesses of all sizes and industries to implement their experiential and research-based vision for flexible, diverse and innovative organizations. In a recent workshop hosted by Visit Alexandria at the McChrystal Group’s headquarters, Experiential Learning Designer Sebastian Little and Associate Emily Bowden shared tips for constructing strategic networks to an audience of meetings planners. Keep reading for their expert advice.

Leveraging Networking Toward Social Capital

The McChrystal Group defines networking as “the purposeful and reciprocal sharing of information and ideas.” Among its many benefits, networking drives innovation, creates a safety net, amplifies impact and boosts social capital.

Greater social capital yields higher-performing organizations. But social capital needs to be developed before it is utilized. For example, Little says, you might ask a new neighbor for a cup of sugar, but it takes a more established relationship to drop off your three-year-old when you run an errand. Below, Little and Bowden offer solutions for bolstering an effective network and increasing social capital.

Image Credit: Misha Enriquez for Visit Alexandria

Why Weak Ties are More Important than Strong Ties

To describe the default state of our networks, Bowden introduced the concept of homophily, wherein people will naturally gravitate toward those who look and act like themselves. In other words, “Birds of a feather flock together.” These ties with like-minded individuals, though strong, yield homogenous teams whose downsides can include redundant strengths, a lower degree of creativity, groupthink and gaps in critical skills. Diverse teams, while challenging to assemble and streamline, tend to produce a higher degree of creativity, innovation and wide-ranging expertise. These “weak ties,” in turn, catalyze the pioneering ideas that take your team and event to the next level.

Constructing a diverse network and a diverse team requires a conscious mental switch when networking. Think: Be curious and identify something shared. Be wary of confirmation bias during an initial conversation, when you might exclusively absorb information that verifies your first impression. Focus on being interested, not interesting, then identify shared values, experiences and other commonalities.

Building a Network with Limited Time and Resources

How do you prioritize your relationship-building, given the limits of your time and resources? Little played a mesmerizing clip of a flock of starlings in motion. These starlings embody the “team of teams” model, each bird traveling with a smaller pack of five to nine birds within the greater flock. The strength of the flock as a whole lies in the “weak ties” between those smaller packs. Weak ties need not be resource-draining to prove beneficial, and strong ties can be nurtured strategically, rather than haphazardly.

Save time and energy by analyzing and shaping your network through the lens of your short-term and long-term goals. To meet your immediate and future goals, bolster urgent “critical connections,” with your supervisor, for example, alongside non-urgent but invaluable “strategic partnerships,” such as professional mentors.

Image Credit: Misha Enriquez for Visit Alexandria

How to Expand Your Network

One simple way to expand your network is by brokering relationships yourself. As you triangulate a connection, set the relationship up for success by communicating the value that each party will bring to the other’s needs, as well as their respective tendencies and preferences. Not only will you expand your web of connections, but you will gain social capital by providing a service.

Bowden also suggests building connections like bamboo, rather than silver maple. Silver maples spring up quickly and provide shade, but ultimately prove vulnerable to storms and other threats. While bamboo takes several years to sprout, the end result is dense and resilient. In other words, don’t immediately ask a new connection for a job, but wait to reap the benefits of a well-established connection.

There are many ways to maintain these “bamboo” networks. Little keeps a pack of thank you notes in his backpack at all times, always ready to boost a connection with a quick note of gratitude. Other suggestions included leaving yourself individualized reminders in your phone’s contact list (i.e. His daughter who just went to college; she just adopted a pet). Optimize your communications with the following formula: Touch Point = Quality x Quantity x Frequency. Each relationship requires a varying combination of these variables, quality of the communication (in-person versus by text, for example), quantity (length of communication) and frequency (how often these communications occur).

A strategic, diverse network will yield dividends for you and your organization’s impact. Connect with the McChrystal Group to learn more about taking your team to the next level.

Insider Tip: Build your network by plugging into ALXNetworks or join your peers for some friendly conversation and good wine at Visit Alexandria’s monthly Wine & Wisdom Wednesdays, uncorked

Header Image Credit: McChrystal Group