The changing landscape of business, markets and work has encouraged astute individuals at all levels to gain support from purposeful networks and relationships. This author explains why such networks have become so important.

Managing change is de rigueur for executives. The permanent “white water” of corporate life means that executives continually operate outside their comfort zone and push the boundaries of their ability to adapt. Seizing the opportunities that continuous and discontinuous change present, and using these opportunities as a source of market advantage, is often an executive’s greatest challenge. This is especially true because executives have to overcome their own natural resistance to change. This article describes the changing landscape of business and how managers can form a diverse and valuable support network – and adapt to this new landscape.

The changing landscape

The nature of business is changing. Intellect, the ability to build lasting relationships, and the capacity to understand and apply technology have all grown in importance. In the information age, sharing knowledge and connecting with people is critical for success, innovation and picking up on the early signals of change. Both what you know and who you know are vital ingredients for getting things done in this information-rich, interconnected world.

The nature of the market is changing. The prosperity of the last decade has given some executives a false sense of security. As companies compete in differing and changing climates, the assumptions about stability, advantage and planning no longer apply. Strategy is more and more a series of options along a continuum. The fundamentals by which a company operates can change suddenly and without warning. In his book Only the Paranoid Survive (Time Warner 1999), Intel’s Andy Grove refers to this phenomenon as “strategic inflection points.” Warning against complacency, Grove says we can distinguish the signals from the noise by engaging in continuous debate and analysis, sharing information and generating new ideas.

The nature of work is changing. Consider how many people do business in cafés — talking on their mobiles, participating in conference calls with people from around the world, accessing e-mail in real time on their BlackBerrys, working on their wireless laptops, catching up with personal contacts. These knowledge workers are highly mobile, intensely driven and, above all, have a personal network separate from the organizations that employ them. Their notions of career, how they participate in the workforce, and what is meant by retirement are all changing. Technologies, social and demographic shifts, differing client interactions and new approaches to work are creating fresh configurations for how people are employed, connect and collaborate.

Become more resilient

At an individual level, the pressure to remain agile, competent and relevant within these changing landscapes can trigger personal dilemmas, tensions and paradoxes. As a result of our multiple capabilities, we do not have a single, unified sense of self-esteem. We want meaning in our lives: to have a purpose, to love, to create, to belong, to achieve our potential and to leave a legacy. People do not resist change per se; what they resist is loss.

Personal and career transitions, or passages, are one of the most critical and difficult of our life’s journey. These experiences are intense for both the mind and heart, and test us in the most fundamental way. Change is also happening at an unprecedented pace. This has led astute individuals to focus part of their energy on developing a range of adaptive responses, and on forming purposeful relationships.

Renata Schnall, of Essential Consulting, agrees. “The psychological contract with employing organizations has changed,” she says. “Individuals now take greater control of what is needed for their success. The business-savvy are developing resilience by harnessing their own trusted networks, both within and outside the organization.”

Rather than waiting for the next “white-water rapid,” why not lay the groundwork for adaptability by creating a self-directed support group — a group in which diversity of experience, real-world perspective, strategic input, influence and referrals come together. These advisers become your think tank.

The power of networks

A network is a dynamic set of relationships (both close and distant) of mutual value that impacts on your ability to get things done, to develop and to learn. It is a fluid, reciprocal and collegial source of shared inspiration, unique information, advice and guidance.

As doing business becomes more and more global, networks need to become more diverse. Membership need not be limited by geography, types of generations or industry type. The ties and connections between and among the members of the network should create shared business, communities of learning, co-mentoring, support in times of change, and openings to new ideas and opportunity.

It is common for good networks to have a group of key players who understand they can be asked to connect members to people they need to know?? You can’t know everyone and you don’t need to. These key players are connectors. They willingly share information and power, knowing they can be asked to reciprocate down the road. They help plant seeds for the future. The more connectors you know, the stronger your expanded network.

These connections are of value because they act as a bridge to new people. There is a well-known experiment, called “The Small World Study,” performed by researcher Stanley Milgram in the 1960s. With a colleague, he wanted to know how many links it would take to get a folder from one part of the country to a nominated stranger in another part of the country by sending it first to someone they knew on a first-name basis. That person was to send the folder to someone closer, and so on, until it reached the targeted destination. The average number of contacts required to get the folder to its destination was six — that is,”six degrees of separation” between the two people.

Today, supposedly, we are only 3.5 links away, sustaining the notion that each of us has an expanded network. Applying the concept of degrees of separation, consider how many new and different individuals each of your contacts can connect you with. For the people you know, how many contacts can you give to them? It is interesting to also ask yourself: Who knows you? This changes your focus.

Connect for innovation

When it comes to ongoing, steady business, you need deep and meaningful relationships. This can be very reassuring. The problem, of course, is that these close contacts know the same people, have the same information, and often have the same views and opinions.

But when it comes to ideas, creativity and thinking outside the box, each of us must have a diverse range of distant contacts. These people can be a strong source of unanticipated opportunities. Distant contacts are seeing different people from different occupations or disciplines, and are more likely to be thinking from a different perspective. This means they can connect you to new sources.

Innovation is about being proactive and anticipating change in an ever-changing world. Ideas do not just happen. Be curious. Expand your crossindustry contacts to include people with whom you can talk fairly regularly and have a good exchange of ideas. Also communicate broadly; seek input from related functional areas, mentors or different stakeholders, to obtain a more dynamic view.

Solid research is emerging about the link between diversity and creative thinking, supporting the view that a varied group of people will outperform a homogeneous group in tasks of creative thinking. Creativity thrives on diversity in the broadest sense, including diversity of thinking, style and experiences.

A survey of Stanford Business School alumni who had started new businesses shows the link between diverse networks and innovation. The metrics for innovation used by Martin Ruef, assistant professor of strategic management at Stanford, included the introduction of new products or services; trademark or patenting activity; exploitation of a new market niche; new methods of production, distribution or marketing; and industry restructuring.

Ruef found that entrepreneurs who spend more time with a diverse network of close and distant ties are three times more likely to innovate than entrepreneurs stuck with a uniform network. “Diverse networks and sources of information encourage the diffusion of non-redundant information and thus stimulate creativity,” he said. Ruef also found that people tend to be more creative and innovative when they are new to an industry, and less innovative when they have tenure or familiarity.

Rules of relationships

Relationship building is neither simple nor easy, but it can be well worth the effort. Each of us is dependent on a balance of relationships. To be successful, keep the other person’s needs and interests in mind. It’s not about you. It is about understanding the unique interests of others and keeping an eye open for ways to help them.

You need to earn your position in the lives and business-card folders of other men and women. What is your point of difference? Think about what you offer that makes you unique, valuable and distinctive. What do you have to offer that other people might value, and why would they make time for you? Is it your thinking, technical expertise, client skills or leadership?

Be generous, be helpful, mentor others, contribute to the community and your profession, cross-network and help people connect with those you know. Honour the adage that upholds “giving without remembering and receiving without forgetting.”

You are expected to reciprocate. People who understand the concept of networking know that what goes around comes around. Remember the people who took time to counsel, guide, champion and direct you on important issues. It’s a debt that is never fully repaid.

At the core of strong relationships are discretion, respect and trust. Create a positive impression of yourself through the quality of your work, your attitude and your integrity. If someone has a strong notion of your reputation, then they are more likely to respond to you and refer you to others. The nature of your relationship will dictate how deep and how far you go in sharing important information. Giving something of value is a signal that promotes reciprocal trust.

Relationships develop organically and take time, so make it a way of life rather than a transactional activity. At any given time, there is a portion of your network that is “live,” in the sense that you are communicating frequently and actively with those contacts in that portion of the network. This may be a function of a project you are working on together. These relationships may become temporary coalitions. The rest of the network has not gone away; it is just less active at this time.

A personal advisory board

People in the “C-cohort” — CFO, COO, CIO and, especially, the CEO — have a rarefied perspective. They rarely get straight feedback. There are few people with whom they can explore concerns or discuss sensitive issues. There are even fewer with whom they would want to share their vulnerabilities. It is not surprising that they appreciate the confidentiality and personal reliance that comes from the input and social connection of their trusted advisers.

These high-calibre and talented trusted advisers are the part of a network that tends to act as a “personal advisory board.” This group, either formally or informally, and either individually or as a committee, provides coaching and mentoring. Its mandate is to resolve specific problems; work through the issues of change and transition; assess strategy; or provide guidance, expertise and special knowledge in the various life-cycle stages of a business. Above all, they should provide candour.

As many executives “manage in the moment,” feedback helps them accurately interpret what they see, and “feedforward” helps with future-oriented suggestions on how to improve. It can be difficult to get through to people-even those who are smart and intelligent-to assess their values and level of emotional intelligence, to understand where skill sets have changed, and to make adjustments on how they spend their time or whether they are operating at the right level. It helps them “look in the mirror and out the window.”

Another key resource can be a leadership coach. Coaches help people realize that change is not linear and programmed, but rather, emergent and unpredictable. Leadership coaches can help their clients consider the steps in the change process and anticipate scenarios. If done right, leadership coaching helps the individual envision the future and its possibilities, while shaping concrete goals and prioritizing concrete action. It provides reflection time-something that is rare within the executive world.

Leadership coaching can also help an executive remain agile and relevant, and to deal with corporate realities. Skills that have been effective in the past reach their use-by date more quickly. People are being promoted to executive positions at an earlier age. The pace of change forces executives to continually adjust their mindset about the future, while needing to achieve exemplary results today. There is a higher reliance on networking and emotional intelligence to navigate and extract value from companies with flat, matrix or virtual structures. Coming to terms with these pressures, executives now look for the support a leadership coach can give them, to hone or reinvent capabilities, plus help them to verbalize their inner dialogue.

The roles provided by an advisory board or leadership coach can range from guide to influencer, to partner to mentor-depending on the level of direction and support that any situation requires. For maximum value, this group should stretch, challenge and explore thinking, and be Socratic in its approach. This means questioning that is effective and that brings insight to feed curiosity, which nurtures wisdom.

Prepare for the inevitable

Uncertainty is the norm. Change is inevitable. “To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly” was the view of the French philosopher Henri Bergson. Networks, mentors, leadership coaches and advisory boards can all help you pick up the early signals of change, discover responses and provide the support to work through both the cognitive and the emotional. It is a very powerful coalition.