Mention the word “network” and most people shudder with dread. It conjures up visions of awkwardly attending events that you would rather not attend, making stilted conversation with total strangers and passing out your business card to someone that you know will probably never look at it again – or if they do, they’ll screw their nose up in frustration trying to remember the person who gave them the business card, before throwing it in the bin.

Does this sound familiar?   Well, my hope is that you will feel differently by the time you’ve finished reading this and will have developed different, healthier strategies around your network and networking that are congruent with who you are.

“People do business with people they know, like and trust. Companies don’t make decisions, people do.” – Mike Fishbein

I’m going to start off by playing with the word “network”, which has many meanings, depending on the context in which it is used, and on whether it is used as a noun or as a verb. For the purposes of this article, let’s use two definitions that came up in an internet search on the word:


  • (Noun) A group or system of interrelated people or things
  • (Verb) Interact with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts.

First, I’m going to highlight research conducted by Nicky H.D. Terblanche, Rajesh J. Jock, and Marius Ungerer: Creating and maintaining a commercially viable executive coaching practice in South Africa.

“… participants emphasised the importance of alliance formation and saw it as a consequence of their networking efforts.”

“After having defined their market, the vast majority of owners acquired business through their networks instead of marketing their business. Participants repeatedly emphasised the importance of network, relationships and associations.”

Clearly, your networks and interpersonal relationships are a key success factor in building a successful and sustainable coaching practice. If you reconsider your network in the light of building alliances, does this make networking more palatable for you? With creating alliances as the goal, where should you concentrate your networking activities, and who should you be networking with? Who – in your current network – would be potential alliance partners?

In a 2005 Harvard Business Review article, How to Build Your Network, the authors said that “individual success is tied to the ability to transcend natural skill limitations through others. Highly diverse network ties, therefore, can help you develop more complete, creative, and unbiased views of issues. And when you trade information or skills with people whose experiences differ from your own, you provide one another with unique, exceptionally valuable resources.”

map your networkThey suggest an exercise in which you map and diagnose your network by creating 3 columns on a page. The left-hand column is a list of all the key people in your network. These are people through whom you have gained access to broader, influential networks, who stimulate creative thinking or who have specialised skills (I would even add in an additional column here to list the attributes of these key people).

In the centre column, list the people who introduced you to the key people in your network (you may see patterns start to emerge that identify certain people as connectors). The right-hand column is for you to list people that you introduced to your key contacts (the people in the left-hand column) so that you can start to see where you have acted as a broker or connector for other people.

The authors of the HBR article highlight two aspects of networking that can work against your network being an effective, key success factor in building your business:

  1.  The self-similarity principle, where your network consists mostly of people who are in the same industry as you, who have similar skills or expertise or who hold a similar world view. Research has shown, however, that too much similarity restricts creative thinking and problem-solving as there is no-one to challenge your world view or to offer alternative perspectives.

The article cites a great example of some research conducted at the University of Columbia in 2002 among executives who were studying there. The executives all had to attend a networking event, at which they were given the opportunity – and were encouraged – to meet new people. The study showed that they all gravitated to like-minded people or people who held similar positions. The criteria for networking success at this event was for the executives to meet new contacts who held different roles in different industries from them. The researchers concluded that the barman at the event was ultimately the most successful networker!

2. The proximity principle, which says that we tend to build the strongest networks with the people that we spend the most time with. In doing so, we limit the potential diversity of our networks, and their ability to be an efficient business-building tool.

Rather, they recommend that we should network based on shared activities as this gives a base on which trust can be established and built, and which “bring together a cross-section of disparate individuals around a common point of interest.” These might include people that you meet through participating in group social or sporting activities, through volunteer work or by joining professional associations.

When we network (v), it could be said that we are interacting with people with intention. I want to be very clear that I am not promoting that you look at the people in your network with the express intent of using them for your own gains. Rather, look at your network in terms of how you can create mutually value-adding relationships, alliances and joint ventures to (jointly) create something much more powerful and beneficial for your potential market. Your network is one of your key strategic business and marketing pillars.

We all have a network (n) of interrelated people: personal, professional, social. One thing we know for a fact is that business has always operated based on relationships. If you’ve met me in my professional capacity, I can guarantee that you will have heard me talk about the 3 primary factors in how potential clients choose their coaches. Yes, I’m referring to what I call the “TRC”. That’s not the Truth & Reconciliation Commission; it stands for

  • Trustworthiness (which included word-of-mouth referrals)
  • Results
  • Chemistry

Research into how potential coaching clients choose their coaches consistently tells us that the initial choice is made based on other people’s recommendations, and only then will they also look for evidence of the results that these coaches have achieved with their clients. This is where client testimonials play such a huge role, so don’t ever hesitate to ask for them. We also know that first impressions count enormously, and that one of the critical success factors in the coaching relationship is good chemistry between coach and client.

I’ve strayed a little from talking purely about our network, BUT word-of-mouth referrals come from our network, and clients – the ones that give the glowing testimonials and who refer people to us – are also an important part of our network. Are you thinking differently about your existing network and how to leverage it effectively?

6 degrees of separationAs a final thought, do you remember “6 degrees of separation”? It was a concept of network theory first postulated in 1929 by Frigyes Karinthy, who said that any person was connected to any other person on the planet by no more than 5 individuals. That’s quite mind-boggling. I know of a couple of people that I’d like to meet, and I’ve had great fun playing with the intervening degrees of separation – and even managed to work out how I would be able to connect to some of these people. Is there someone you would like to connect with? Where would you start in your immediate network? You might be quite surprised if you played around with it.

Happy networking and net-worthing!

References: How to build your network by Brian Uzzi and Sharon Dunnlap, HBR December 2005

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