It’s not just who you know but what you know about them

In one of my leadership trainings I had a number of mid-level managers draw Net-Maps around personal career goals: Who will influence that I reach this goal? One participant enthusiastically drew a complex map and when she reported back to the group we realized that she knew something about everyone on the map, including their big and small dirty secrets. Now, while it is tempting to use blackmail as a networking strategy if you know about everybody’s weakness, I wouldn’t recommend it. And that’s not just because it would be unethical but also, just from a practical perspective, over the long run networks follow the law of: What you give is what you get. So if you embed yourself in a blackmail network, just wait and see, soon you will be on the receiving end. And you will be working in a network based on fear and distrust, which is not a very pleasant or constructive environment.

But this map did point to something that is also important if you plan to engage in positive and trusting relationships: Just knowing who is in your network and what their formal position is, is not enough to become an effective and strategic networker, it is crucial what you know about them. You need this knowledge to decide who to engage with, who to fear, how to build coalitions and how to deal with opposition. What are the things you need to know about your network actors?

Basically, you have to answer three questions:

  1. What can they do?
  2. What drives them?
  3. Who are they?

What can they do?

Try to understand what the people in your network do and what they are capable of. This is crucial for knowing who to engage with, who would have the actual ability to do and achieve what you need them to do. Also, if you want to predict who may be in your way and how much damage they can do, you need to understand their capabilities. You don’t want to put a lot of energy in building coalitions with people who may be friendly towards your cause but have no influence at all. Also, you don’t want to underestimate the opposition, so try to understand what kinds of strategies they would use and how far their reach is.

What drives them?

The most effective strategy for building strong and lasting coalitions is to find ways how your coalition partners can achieve their goals while you achieve your own. Often people try to convince everyone of their goals and drivers. But the most important thing for you is that your coalition partners do what you want them to do, they don’t necessarily have to believe what you believe. But to be able to frame your goals and activities in a way that appeals to potential coalition partners you have to understand what drives them. Also, by understanding the drivers of your network members you may discover unexpected potential allies.

Who are they?

You need to think about capabilities and drivers, about the content of your coalition, etc.. But in the end there is no way around it: A long term, constructive, reliable coalition will only develop if you are able to nurture trust between coalition partners and trust is something deeply personal. So when I say that you have to answer the question who they are, I really mean it: Who are your network partners as people? What do they love? What do they fear? What is their life like? Do you have things in common that help you relate to them? Can I rely on them?

Years ago, I don’t even remember in which book, I read about an event during the transition in South Africa. Two high level officials from the Apartheid government and the opposition movement met somewhere far away from the cities to develop a way forward. But after years for brutal war against each other, they were not even willing to talk with each other. Their host went fishing with them and one of them had a fishing accident, a hook got deeply stuck in the man’s finger and there was no doctor around to help him. In the end his former (current?) enemy removed the hook from his finger. This small moment of vulnerability and human decency  had nothing to do with the issues that they were there to discuss. But it was the first moment the two interacted as people, not proponents of a movement. This is where the peace talks began.

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