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Leading in the middle: When to go to lunch

People Talking At Tables In Cafe

“If I spend all this time networking, then how will I get any of my real work done?”

Whenever we broach the topic of networking, we’re met with mixed reactions. On the one side, everyone knows that building and maintaining a rich network are necessary for success. But on the other hand, it just feels… umm… a little dirty.

And in fact, recent empirical research suggests just that we do actually feel dirtier after engaging in what is called “instrumental” networking in which we’re focused on getting something from the other person.

Three types of networks 

These mixed feelings could arise from confusion over the different types of networks and what it takes to maintain your network. In her research, Herminia Ibarra identified three types of networks that play a role in our success.

Operational: This network includes the people we work with to accomplish our jobs. It involves individuals both internal and external to the organization, such as relationships with key suppliers.

Personal: We meet these individuals serving on boards, as members of different social and religious organizations, at alumni receptions or at industry conferences.

Strategic: These connections are individuals who could be strategically important to our career – senior managers within our company, senior leaders in other companies and industries, and others who expose us to new ideas, challenge our knowledge and can connect us to others.

Each network is critically important to foster.

Our operational network helps us get things done working in the middle of the organization.

The personal network provides friendship, support and the exchange of ideas. It contains individuals who might be able to lend an independent ear in the diagnosis of a work situation.

The strategic network helps us to learn and grow and might very well indirectly lead to the next step in our career progression.

With all of these network relationships to maintain, you are probably already dreading yet another blog encouraging you to “do it all” – develop, expand and maintain all of these networks right now. Go forth and conquer! You can do it all and have perfect work-life balance. Yes, you can! Go! Go! Go!

Do an assessment.

But we’re not going to do that to you, because we don’t like getting that kind of advice and suspect that you don’t either. Nobody needs another one of those blogs.

So, what can we do? Do an honest assessment of how you are doing in each of the three networks. How many strong and weak ties do you have in each network? Which one have you ignored recently? Which one needs attention? Do this assessment occasionally and pick one to work on.

Find small opportunities to connect to a small number of people in small ways.

Are those enough “smalls” for you? Let’s make this doable. Maintaining a network is not all that difficult or challenging, and it doesn’t need to take an inordinate amount of time. But it does take a thoughtful strategy.

Think of simple things that can help you make a human, person-to-person connection with individuals in your network. Instead of sending an email, go talk to someone or call them on the phone occasionally. Go out with your colleagues for a drink every once in a while, or go hear an industry speaker at a breakfast event. You don’t have to do all of these – or perhaps even most of these – but you do need to do some of them.

If you work in an office with a cafeteria, consider when to go to lunch. Sometimes, of course, you need to go when no one is there so you can get through the line and get back to work. Other times, however, you might want to go precisely when everyone else is there.

“But there will be a long line! It will take forever! It will be a waste of time!”

The first two reactions are certainly true. There will be a long line, and it will take a long time. But if done thoughtfully, it will not be a waste of time. When you meet someone in line or run into someone you know, it’s a great opportunity to connect with them personally or about a work issue.

Watch this quick (hopefully fun) video that we put together to drive this point home.

Remember, to establish or maintain a network, you do not need to meet everyone for lunch or coffee. And – newsflash – other people have a lot of work to do, too, so they actually might not want to have coffee with you!

One way to think about it so that it is not so overwhelming is to thoughtfully and strategically think about how you can:

  • Find small opportunities
  • To make small connections
  • With a small number of (not the same) people

Wash, rinse, repeat and you’ll see your network getting stronger and richer.

By Dave Hofmann, Mark McNeilly and Dave Roberts, professors at UNC Kenan-Flagler