You already have at least two different types of networks in your life: personal and professional. Personal networks are populated with family and friends, people you see often and who care for you deeply. They typically contain a lot of close ties—your spouse or partner, close family members, even distant relatives that you see infrequently.
But most of us have "loose-tie" networks, too. Perhaps you're a member of an alumni association at your alma mater. Maybe you have a group of friends and acquaintances who've moved away, but you still keep in contact on Facebook. Or you might have an even looser network of former coworkers or the handful of people in your field whom you've met at conferences. It's these loose ties—especially the ones including business associates—that form the foundation of your professional network.
Now let's say you're searching for a job. Which of those two networks do you think would serve you best?
- A. Close-tie
- B. Loose-tie
If you answered "A. Close tie," the strong personal network that would do anything for you, you're probably in the majority. It’s natural to think that those closest to us would have our best interests at heart. And they do. But when it comes to advancing your career or finding a job, the broader and looser your network, the more successful your search.
Why? Because our close ties often share our same network of contacts—they know who you know. If you answered "B. Loose tie," you may already know how powerful a wide net of professional acquaintances and loose-tie contacts can be.
At the very least, close personal networks let us connect to friends of friends or acquaintances, who in turn can provide a bridge to other contacts. But loose-tie networks are often more powerful than that—and more honest. Since many of these contacts are less directly tied to you, they are less concerned with mitigating risk on your behalf.
"Do you know what the odds are for a first-time business to succeed?" your dad might ask. "No one makes any money in that industry!" that good friend of yours will say. They only wish the best for us, but our closest contacts may end up discouraging us from stretching beyond anything that isn’t guaranteed.
Because they care for us so deeply, the people closest to us don’t want to see us fail. But sometimes we just need the freedom to explore new options and risk messing up.
Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter has found that people who used loose-tie connections had greater success in job searches, experienced greater levels of job satisfaction, and made more money. Since loose-tie contacts are a bit further removed from us—our pursuits and their outcomes—they see the world a little differently and can often evaluate risk from a more objective point of view.
Connecting with them will help you gain the confidence to take a little more risk. They might provide that valuable insight you need to make that risk a success or offer other connections to people who could be helpful. They might help you recognize an entrepreneurial opportunity and perhaps even help you raise money for it.
We all need to have both personal and professional networks. However, it’s your loose-tie network that typically has the best potential for helping you access new opportunities.
As a result, you can supercharge your networks by intentionally building in some diversity. A diverse network should include people of different ages, genders, power, and influence.
Building connections to more powerful people in your organization or community provides a great source for professional and leadership development, plus bridges to other networks. Connecting with younger people can help you to stay current on new technologies and create paths to outside social networks. Networks that are geographically diverse can help you expand your reach into new markets. And networks that are diverse in connections to peers, direct reports, and supervisors expand the opportunities for cross-functional success. Finally, you’ll want a network that has people from different jobs and industry types to help you keep abreast of what's going on there.
Your network is the means by which you can reach for introductions and information. As markets shift and opportunities evolve, diverse networks can help you anticipate change and make sure you have the resources to stay competitive. Consider those networks a testing ground of people who have different perspectives that you can tap into when you want to evaluate or refine a new idea. Or perhaps your next major business plan may come from this network. Whatever its specifics, your goal should be to build a diverse network, with people like you and unlike you.
So how can you determine just how diverse your loose-tie network actually is? Ask yourself these questions about its biggest segments:
- Do they think like you?
- Are they roughly the same age as you?
- Do they share similar beliefs as you?
- Are they your high school friends?
- Are they your past and present work colleagues?
- Are they your direct reports and/or supervisors?
- Are they your customers and outside vendors?
If you answered yes to a few of these, consider how you can increase the diversity of your network. That's where the biggest strides in your career are likely to come from—not your first cousin.
This article is adapted from Stretch: How to Future-Proof Yourself for Tomorrow's Workplace by Karie Willyerd and Barbara Mistick. Copyright (c) 2016 by Karie Willyerd and Barbara Mistick. All rights reserved.