The power of networks

What the evolving state of the economy — with its ever-increasing downsizing, rightsizing, management buyouts, acquisitions and divestitures, and the like — points to is a career strategy that depends more than ever before on the strength of your network.

Great!, thinks the extrovert, who loves to do the “hey, man, howzitgoin’?” of working the room. Aarrghhh!, thinks the introvert, “I’m doomed!”.

Well, no, actually, you’re not. Nor do you need to be someone you’re not.

You just need to understand how to work a network in your favour.

Suppose, just for a moment, we do a thought experiment.

You’re a deep introvert. You have a very few close personal friends — the kind where years can go by and then a subject gets picked back up.

Acquaintances, on the other hand, you don’t spend a lot of time with. You beg off of the reception at the end of the conference — the quiet of your hotel room is far better than the free drinks and noise of the room. You don’t, at the end of the day, know many people.

But you’ve been dumped out into the cold, so you’re going to have to do something.

Your network doesn’t have to start with a bunch of effectively cold calls to anyone whose business card you can find in an old email somewhere.

You’re going to have to keep busy, so you find a volunteer position here, maybe do a little project there. These are the beginnings of your network (beyond those few close friends, who are supporting you emotionally at this point in time).

Suppose you got to the point where you were working regularly with 8 other people. Just 8.

If those 8 know 8 more each, that’s 64 pathways to follow.

Even the deepest introvert can get to 8, and feel comfortable with 8. (By the way, deep introverts tend to have other deep introverts as friends — they’re not attracted to those they perceive as “glad-handers” and “superficial” [that’s not necessarily true of extroverts, but it is a popular introvert description of them] anyway. So don’t expect, if you’re an introvert, that your network will suddenly blossom at the next layer.)

I’m one of those introverts, and I’m also someone who’s moved around a lot. My close friends, right now, are in England, in Chile, in Vancouver and Montréal — only two are in Toronto where I live now. I’ve also worked in different industries, at different things, and so if you trolled my LinkedIn connections you’d see them flying off to very different places that don’t inter-relate with each other.

And, if I’m not interested (say) in returning to academic administration, all those connections to people in academe really aren’t as much help as they may appear at first blush. (This is the career changer’s problem in a nutshell: your old network, no matter whether large [extrovert’s] or small [introvert’s] is mostly unable to be of obvious help to you!)

Right now I’m doing a project (pro bono) to help fire up a not-for-profit semi-moribund society. One goal is that if this works, the money will be there to fund a part-time executive director role for me (the money part of my portfolio, doing something else I’d like to do). But even if not, I believe in this project, and so am comfortable volunteering time and effort to it.

Through the project, I’m meeting connections in the city’s small business community, in its consultancies (but not in the IT-related areas I would have connected to earlier in my life), in media, etc. That’s because the people I need to work with to do this project are all connected there.

Opportunities, in other words, can be multiplied through the network. Thinking portfolio of things to do, rather than “find another job!”, makes it possible to draw on the possibilities of the network. And having the work at hand to do helps me (the introvert) draw myself out and get to know the 5-8 people I’ll meet through this at least well enough to make that come alive for me.

Networks multiply quickly in this way, and create opportunities — much faster, in fact, than knowing hundreds or thousands of people in your industry or field, and barraging them for job openings.

Now I tell you all this because if you look back, say 120 years ago, you would have found a world where 80 per cent of North Americans didn’t have a job as we know it. They had lots of work, but were artisans, or independents, or worked when there was work to be done.

Henry Ford’s mastery of modern industrial organization, coupled with the spread of electricity, changed that. We got the society we grew up in, where 80 per cent of North Americans worked for someone else, and we had jobs in nice career ladders.

What’s emerging around us — it’s why the economy drags along, and why so many jobs are being shed — is the end of that era.

We’re going back to many more of us permanently having work, but not jobs.

Portfolios of things that help you earn your keep are one arm of the strategy to minimize personal risk, by spreading the risk of any one of them ending around the total pie. 6-8 different income streams (all small) are more secure than one job-sized salary, even if it’s hard to tell someone what you do, exactly.

Networks of people you work with likewise help manage your risk, by creating openings for opportunities. 6-8 is manageable even for an introvert, too.

Together, these are the essence of the twenty-first century work world. It’s why at the top of the Personal Due Diligence website you’ll see “What Works Has Changed”.

Because … from the value of a degree, to the way we work … it has.


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