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With a Little Help from Your Friends

With a Little Help from Your Friends

If you want to succeed as a leader, make sure you have a first-class leadership network.

No leader succeeds alone. Successful leaders excel when they are embedded in a network of other leaders, so it's crucial to establish those connections. Your leadership network should include the people you recruit for your teams and the ones you turn to for help; they're the people you look up to as well as the ones you are developing as the next generation. They are the people who will spread the word, for good or ill, about your calibre as a leader.

So how do you build a first-class leadership network? Here are the best lessons I've learned.

The Players

In deciding whom to include in your leadership network, be selective and think across many different dimensions. The goal is to create a partnership of like minds, a set of concentric circles that gradually expand to create your network.

Soul mates and storytellers. Start with the people you are closest to - the ones who know your spirit, your struggles, strengths and successes. You may have only a few soul mates in your life. When you find one, hang on to that person at all costs. Special versions of these are people who may not be like you but who appreciate you and your story. They are opinion leaders or journalists who are positioned to tell your story to people who matter. How do you know when you've found a soul mate? I know when I start telling my wife, the person I'm closest to, about someone new I've met.

Mentors and protégés. Mentors create opportunities as well as provide coaching and support. Protégés help you accomplish goals and also reinforce your own leadership lessons. Your relationships with these leaders are long-term, mutual commitments based on push and pull, seek and guide, explore and achieve, protect and support.

Peers and colleagues. Develop relationships with colleagues inside your organisation and peers outside it. Facing similar challenges in life or career creates a bond and a sense of camaraderie, as well as a high likelihood that something you learn will be valuable to them and vice versa. In building my peer network, I look for diverse leaders who work in different sectors or professions. I find this enriches my base of intellectual capital tremendously. Heroes and legends. Great leaders know their heroes and legends. These are the people you model yourself after. You don't have to be adept at channelling to take advantage of their spirit and expertise. Follow their writings. Read their biographies. Absorb the patterns of their lives. Assess their decision making. Learn from their problem-solving approaches. One of my favourite mentors distinguishes himself in many ways, but the most interesting is the first question he asks anyone new that he meets:"Who are your heroes and why?"

The Setting

Where you build your network involves combining the most superficial networking events with hands-on collaborative projects. The deeper your joint experiences, the richer and more substantive your network will be.

Projects and partnerships. When you meet people you admire as leaders and see a chance to do business with them, jump at the opportunity. There's no better way to learn and to build your network. The first time I tried this I ultimately became business partners with the person, and we've been working together for more than a decade.

Panels and boards. Independent panels and boards demand both leadership and the ability to assess and develop other leaders. They also tend to deal with challenging issues. As such, they are the perfect environment for assessing the depth of character and competence of people you are working with.

Publications and presentations. In most professions and leadership roles, formulating and communicating points of view - whether through publications or presentations - is an important part of the job. Sharing intellectual capital is a potent means of developing a relationship and getting to know how someone thinks. I've met and developed bonds with some of the most important members of my leadership network simply by being on panel discussions together.

Personal and professional events. Whether an elite professional conference or a personal social event brings you together with other leaders, these classic networking opportunities are vital for making the acquaintances that can lead to deeper relationships in the future. By participating regularly, you'll expand your circle of potential fellow leaders.

The Method

Building and nurturing a network is a constant process of give and take, investing and gaining rewards.

Bestow and earn respect. Leaders have a finely honed respect for humanity. British Petroleum's Sir John Brown looks for the three H's in his leaders: humanity, humility and humour. Successful leaders have also worked hard to earn respect themselves. So be attuned to the styles and sensibilities that show respect, and demonstrate that you can earn it. This ranges from simple things like the ability to listen to showing a touch of class in how you communicate or present yourself.

Ask and offer. US Senator Tip O'Neill used to say that you never get anywhere in life without asking. For political leaders, it means asking for money and votes. For business leaders, it means asking for favours, investment and work. It also means being willing to offer these in return. If you meet someone who captures your imagination, get to know them well enough to judge what might help them and then offer something that could really make a difference. Invest in the relationship. The worst that can happen is that they say no.

Teach and learn. It's vital to recognise the areas in which you can learn from others and develop a point of view that allows you to teach, whether via stories, modelling, explaining or questioning. Once you show the ability to both teach and learn, the bonds start to build. Many leaders I know even have e-mail distribution networks so that when they want to pass something interesting along they can send it to everyone in their network at once.

Sow and reap. Part of building great relationships involves recognising that there are times in life, careers and relationships when you want to invest and give without expecting anything in return. There are also times - such as crises or great opportunities - when you should focus on reaping the returns of what you have sown.

If you target the right people and build your leadership network in the right places and the right ways, it can become the greatest asset you have - besides yourself.

Christopher Hoenig has been an entrepreneur, government executive (director for information management and technology issues at the GAO), consultant (McKinsey & Company) and inventor, and he is the author of The Problem Solving Journey: Your Guide to Making Decisions and Getting Results (Perseus Publishing, 2000). He is now chairman and CEO of Exolve in Washington, DC

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