Networking your way to executive success

Business does not operate in a vacuum, and for a leader to succeed, interpersonal skills such as relationship building are just as crucial as the technical skills they possess.

We are often taught the importance of networking in the earliest stages of our career – the famous mantra of “it’s not what you know, but who you know”. This critical competency rises even further in importance for those leading an organisation.

With that in mind, it’s essential to find the right balance between quantity and quality when building your executive network. A large network will not necessarily contribute favourably to your career if it is not filled with the appropriate individuals who can drive your executive development.

Therefore, just like any major business activity, a strategic approach to networking is vital. Here are some points to consider when expanding your web of corporate relationships.

Why leaders need to network

So why exactly is networking so important to the modern business leader, and what benefits does it bring?

In a Psychology Today article, author Ray Williams even goes as far to call networking “the essential professional skill”. In the article, he cites numerous experts in the field to build an argument for why networking needs to be a priority for any professional.

For example, he cites Brian Uzzi and Shannon Dunlap who, in their Harvard Business Review article entitled “How To Build Your Network”, claim that networking comes with “three unique advantages: private information, access to diverse skill sets, and power”.

According to Uzzi and Dunlap, business leaders can often recognise these three advantages being enacted in their day-to-day work – however, many do not realise just how big a role networking plays in all this.

Further, in an article for the INSEAD Knowledge blog, Professor of Organisational Behaviour Herminia Ibarra takes a unique spin on the classic networking slogan and argues that “what you know is who you know”. In other words, what and who you know are just as important, and leaders need to learn how to marry these two for the benefit of the business.

“Other things being equal, what is going to give you an edge?” she asks.

“It’s the relationships that you have that allow you to augment what you know and allow you to take the ‘what you know’ and actually to translate it into practice, into something the organisation can use. It makes all the difference.”

The three types of networking

The importance of business networking can certainly not be doubted – however, it’s important to recognise that there is more than one type of networking, and successful leaders need to know how to leverage each one. As outlined in a Harvard Business Review article by Herminia Ibarra and Mark Lee Hunter, there are in fact three types of networks:


Operational networking is when you develop relationships with the right people within your organisation, with the purpose of doing your job better and more efficiently. The relationships tend to be focused internally, although they can be spread across different departments, with the goal of meeting the current operational demands of the organisation.


On the other side of the coin, personal networking is important as it grows your list of contacts outside of the immediate organisational sphere. As such, relationships tend to be focused on those external to the business, and can centre around interests and pursuits beyond the corporate world.

According to Ibarra and Hunter, such relationships are crucial as they play a role in fostering both personal and professional development.


Lastly, strategic networking is one of the most complex – and also one of the most important – forms of relationship building. This focuses on creating connections with high-value individuals both internal and external to the organisation, such as those who are future-oriented and likely to contribute to the positive growth and development of your company.

Ibarra and Hunter outline that when a leader believes he or she is a good networker, they are often only thinking in terms of their operational or personal ability. However, leaders need to learn to “employ networks for strategic purposes” in order to gain maximum value out of their relationships.

It can be a worthwhile exercise to rate yourself on these three types of networking and see if there are any areas for improvement. Assess your current network – are the relationships too focused on the operational and personal level, or is there an overarching strategic goal that governs them?

What makes a good network?

For all three types of network, it is obviously important to create meaningful, lasting relationships that contribute in a positive way to your development. So what characteristics make up a strong network?

The Center for Creative Leadership’s ‘A Leader’s Network How to Help Your Talent Invest in the Right Relationships at the Right Time‘ paper posits one view on the issue, listing three key qualities of a good network. According to the paper, the best networks are:

Open – networks should be open enough that not everyone in your circle knows each other.
Diverse – connections should “cross critical boundaries”, reaching across vertical, horizontal, geographic, demographic and other limits.
Deep – quality, meaningful relationships that can lead you to new information, ideas and resources are crucial.

By strengthening your network-building skills across the three types listed above, and ensuring each connection you make is open, deep and diverse, you can make sure your network is primed to contribute the best possible value for the development of yourself and your business.