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The Power of Networks

If your network is powerful enough, you too could end up on a postage stamp

By Tim McEwan, Leadership Specialist and Fellow in Management Practice at Cambridge Judge Business School

Here’s a story of two men, one pretty famous, the other lost in the mists of historical obscurity, though they both attempted to carry out the same task on the same night.

One ended up being commemorated on a US postage stamp, having towns named after him, a famous poem written about him – even a 20th century brand of cigarettes carried his name and image for a few decades. The reason for all this posthumous fame was that he had a powerful social network. The other man did not.

How to fail at spreading the word

The time we’re talking about is the late 18th century. In fact, it was 18th April 1775. British authorities had just landed an army in Boston to quell the nascent American revolution. The revolutionaries sent riders far and wide up and across Massachusetts on the famous “Midnight Ride” to warn others that the British were coming.

One of the riders was named William Dawes. Another – the more celebrated – was Paul Revere. Now, Paul Revere by this time was a small businessman of about 40. He was gregarious and well-known in the area. He was well networked too.

So when he went on his midnight ride, he didn’t just shout: “The British are coming!” He actually knew which doors to knock on on his route where the inhabitants knew him and would take him seriously and were also fairly well networked themselves. They would be sure to spread the word further.

He was strategic in how he shared the information. When the British soldiers proceeded along the route Paul Revere had taken, they faced stiff resistance from local revolutionaries. But poor old William Dawes? Well, it appears he was not so gregarious. He certainly was not well networked.

When he went on his midnight ride, he didn’t know which doors to knock on. He didn’t have contacts whom he knew would spread the word. Along his route, the people didn’t take him seriously. So much so that when the British marched along Dawes’ route, they encountered almost no militia resistance at all.

Matching the right information with the right people

This, in a nutshell, is a classic illustration of the power of what’s known as “brokerage.” Brokerage is the ability to match what you know with who you know. To share interesting or valuable information with those who will most benefit from it, as well as those who also in turn know who to share that knowledge with.

The Paul Revere story shows the power of brokerage writ large. It also shows another characteristic of a strong network – network “nodes”. We all know people in organisations who just seem to be really well plugged in. It’s not their job to be a broker of relationships; they’re just very good at knowing how to get things done, and who to talk to, to make things happen.

When I worked at an asset management firm some years ago, there was a lady called Jane who was like this. She was an investment director on a fund desk It wasn’t her job to connect with people or help them out, but she enjoyed it. She became almost a legend, as everyone in the company knew that if you wanted anything done, you talked to Jane and she could help you out with a name, or a word in the ear of the right person.

She was a network node. It’s an unglamorous term for someone so brilliant and so generous with her time, but that’s what she was. She, like Paul Revere, was a force multiplier. Every organisation has people like this. The tragedy of it is that firms often don’t realise just how valuable such people are – not until they leave, and that force multiplier disappears. Fewer things get done.

When you lose people like Jane in an organisation, you’re not only losing the technical competence they bring. You’re also losing all that connectivity that they had. Imagine, if you will, an organisation made up entirely of William Dawes’s and no Paul Reveres. Just how successful do you think that organisation would be?

Those who embrace the power of networks are much more likely to succeed

You may wonder why I’m talking about the power of networks. The fact is, I was asked to give a talk on this subject the other week at a company and so it was on my mind. But also, never is there a time when the power of networks is needed more than during turbulent or uncertain times.

More than half of people still get jobs through network connections. Companies who fail to recognise and keep hold of their network nodes become less effective at getting things done. And in times when so many of us are working in a hybrid fashion, effective networks are essential for building the kinds of relationships that will make hybrid working viable, productive, and personally satisfying on an individual level.

In fact, even companies that are doing well and growing fast need to understand and harness the power of networks in order that they don’t dilute their effectiveness as they grow. In almost any scenario, having a strong network is important.

So urture your personal network. It has many benefits to offer. You can access information that you likely otherwise would not have. It can give you a degree of influence, perhaps a reputation in your industry that could benefit your future career, or the USP of your organisation. And of course you can also help others.

Build an understanding of the power and importance of networks. If you do, you too can multiply the impact you have on the world, just like Paul Revere.