Networking has long been recognized as a powerful tool for people who aspire to leadership positions. Knowing more people gives you greater access to the right people, facilitates the sharing of information, and makes it easier to influence others for the simple reason that influencing people you know is easier than influencing strangers. The creators of LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter have built their empires on the presumption that their social networking tools help people build bigger networks and remain better connected than ever. Does it follow, then, that social networks, by making connectivity easier, make leaders more powerful?
The answer is no. Clearly, online social networks allow you to meet people you might never have known otherwise. On LinkedIn, you can build awareness of your products or services, join groups of people with similar interests, search for job opportunities, or look for people who might be qualified to fill a position in your company. And Facebook enables you to find long-lost classmates or share with friends what you liked about a new film or what you saw during your trip to Venice.
But these benefits of social networking, while valuable to some degree depending on how frequently and extensively you use these networks, miss the essence of what makes networking such a powerful tool for leaders and other highly influential people. The research on power and influence shows that people who are well networked are three times more influential than people who aren’t. But their power is based on the social capital they have developed in building relationships with the people in their network—and you can’t build sufficient capital with people by merely “friending” them on Facebook or accepting an invitation to connect on LinkedIn.
Network power depends on how strong your relationships are, on how much attention you command when you engage people, and on how attractive you are as a member of other peoples’ networks. If you are known as a someone with deep expertise, for instance, and people can rely on you for solutions or creative ideas, you will be an attractive network partner. If you know other powerful people and can access them whenever you need to, you will be a more attractive network partner. Similarly, if you are in a position of authority in your organization, you will be a more valued network partner because you can make and enact decisions. Finally, you will have more power in your network with the people you know best—with long-time colleagues, close friends, and others with whom you have developed mutual trust and respect.
To build those kinds of relationships with people you meet on online social networks, you must sustain contact with them over an extended period, have meaningful exchanges with them, disclose a lot about yourself, learn a lot about them, and build the kind of trusting relationships that normally occur when you have known or worked with someone successfully over a period of time.
I have more than 400 connections on LinkedIn, which probably makes me an average LinkedIn member. However, at least two-thirds of those connections are with people who asked to be connected with me and whom I’ve accepted even though I’ve never met them. They might have been friends of friends or colleagues in my company whom I’ve spoken to on the phone but don’t know well. Or they might be people who have read my profile and thought it would be useful to them to be connected to me. In all these cases, my power with these people (and their power with me) is limited by the fact that I have relatively little genuine social capital with them (and vice versa).
Remember that social networks like LinkedIn are useful, but they are no substitute for direct personal connections and the kind of history you develop with people who have known you for some period of time.
Networking can be a powerful tool. It can enhance your ability to lead and influence other people—but only when the people in your network value being connected with you. The power of networking lies in how well they know you, how much they trust and respect you, how much they gain from having you in their network, how frequently you communicate with each other, and how many other powerful people there are in your network.
Terry R. Bacon, PhD, has been a thought leader, coach, and consultant to global businesses in leadership, management, and interpersonal skills for more than thirty years. In 1989, he founded Lore International Institute, a widely respected executive development firm recently acquired by the Korn/Ferry Institute, where he currently serves as a Scholar in Residence.