For centuries, we have recognized the importance of networking. By developing a strong network, you can gain access to private information, expertise, and influence. This is even more important for consultants - who, in order to sell intangible services, need to earn trust and deepen relationships.
Sometimes consultants approach me frustrated with their current network. Despite investing time and energy in building and deepening relationships, they are getting nothing back. The problem is not effort, but the right focus.
Brian Uzzi, Co-Director of Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO), is one of the leading experts in networking. I've added several of his exercises in the training program I deliver to consulting partners - if you want to learn more about his work, you can start by reading this piece at HBR.
Confirming his research, I've found that consultants fall prey to two behaviors that hurt their network:
- The self-similarity principle; and
- The proximity principle.
The Self-Similarity Principle
The self-similarity principle states that we tend to choose and deepen relationships with contacts who look like us - in terms of experience, worldview, etc.
While many consultants are aware of the "similarity attraction bias" in hiring, we often forget this also affects our relationships. Of course, the self-similarity principle exists because it brings with it several benefits:
- It's easier to trust someone with a similar worldview;
- It's easier to work and communicate with someone with a similar background;
- Similar people will usually think alike, and we don't enjoy being challenged.
Of course, if your network is too similar (Uzzi provides some helpful benchmarks to evaluate it) the cons start to overcome the pros. You won't have access to discrepant information, which hurts creativity and problem-solving. And since people tend to introduce their contacts to one another, over time you end up creating an echo chamber.
The Proximity Principle
Another obstacle to building a strong network is the proximity principle. The idea is simple: we prefer to populate our networks with the people we spend the most time with.
These could be your partners or team colleagues. The people who go to the same gym you do, or with whom you play golf every weekend. Or the folks who attend the same church as your family.
I wrote about this before here. It doesn't matter the reason - similar interests, close physical location, or a random combination of factors. The fact is that the world is not carefully designed around your work, and life will steer you towards certain people.
If you want to consciously improve your network and leverage it to grow your consulting business, you need to take control of that process. That's why we need some kind of system or mechanism to steer our attention to the relationships that are likely to be the most important to our long-term success.
Do you have one, or are you leaving your network to chance?