Leadership Skills: Networking vs. Building Social Capital (Part 1 of 3)
Scholars have shown that having a wide circle of relationships is a common attribute of leaders. Taking a more monetized view, according to Thomas Stanley of Georgia State University, 80% of all millionaires are networkers. But in spite of this evidence, I, like many of you, hate ‘networking.’ It seemed so superficial when I would go to ‘networking’ events. The crowd was divided in to two groups: those that were furiously throwing business cards at each other trying to determine if somehow they could ‘use’ each other, and second, people like me that clung to the wall and the appetizers, and ran for the exit at the earliest possible moment. I never achieved any meaningful exchange that way, which validated my view of networking as worthless.
And if someone was good at it, it seemed like they were somehow cheating. It was ‘schmoozing’ and ‘brown-nosing’, and I, as a Systems Engineer with IBM, worshipped at the altar of technical skills. Having relationship skills didn’t seem as valuable as technical skills. Add to that the American cowboy mythology of individualism – the cultural belief that we succeed or fail based on our own efforts only – and I avoided networking whenever I could.
My first teacher was not wise council but instead a bad example. He was not very good at his job, but he was very good at establishing and managing the relationships around him that he needed to progress in his career. It was the dreadful old saw, “its not what you know, its who you know.” I didn’t seek to emulate that, but the experience did point to the power of focusing on relationships. I, however, had to do it in a way that was reciprocal and respectful. I realized that my career would move forward faster if I did my job well AND built personally and professionally rewarding relationships with people at all levels. I redefined networking and made it work for me.
My redefined networking emphasis is on building ‘social capital.’ The term better captures for me the concept of a mutual exchange of value, of building relationships based on reciprocity and shared values. The term has been defined by Dr. Wayne Baker, Professor and author of Achieving Success Through Social Capital, as the “contribution to and use of the many resources available to us in and through our personal and business networks.” Notice that he leads with “contribution to” and not “use of.” Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, believes that “the basic idea of social capital is that networks have value for transmitting information and for under-girding cooperation and reciprocity.”