By Dorie Clark
Would you like to add Richard Branson to your network? How about Larry Page, or Sheryl Sandberg, or Marc Andreessen? That’d be great, of course, but innovation expert Deb Mills-Scofield says connecting with a big name may not be as helpful as you’d think. If you really want to learn from your network and use it to spark new ideas, you may be better off looking at the periphery. “The known names are, in a way, lagging indicators,” she says. “They’re already famous and known for what they are doing…Now, these are important connections. However, if we only look at size and status, we’ll miss the emerging patterns coming from the edges or miss the weak signals from other disciplines that can upend our industry, market, and customer base. Sometimes, people with smaller and less ‘flashy’ networks have very eclectic, fascinating networks in some particular area that could have a big influence on our thinking, on our offerings, on who knows what…Yet.”
Mills-Scofield, who is a visiting scholar at Brown University and teaches Business Model Innovation at Oberlin College, believes that many executives have networking all wrong. It should never be viewed as a short-term transaction, she says: “I think most people measure a network connection by how many doors it opens, how it grows their own network or provides job opportunities, instead of what ideas they were exposed to because of this network connection, how they may think differently, what new experiences they’ve had, and what amazing people they’ve met.” If you shift your frame away from immediate tangible results, you’ll be able to experience far greater long-term, intangible benefits.
An inveterate networker, in general and on behalf of her consulting clients, she considers networking “a form of continuing education,” since you can learn so much through the connections you make. For those who’d like to hone their networking skills, she first suggests opening yourself up to possibility. “Use any event or situation you’re in as a networking opportunity, even if it doesn’t seem like it,” she says. “By simply reaching out and talking to people wherever you are, you can learn,” such as the time she met someone at a grocery store checkout line and heard about a recipe that’s become a family favorite. “Don’t dismiss people out of hand by title, company, looks, etc., because you just never know what pearls of wisdom and great opportunities for innovation and creation may arise by talking to them.”
Next, she says, you can proactively “identify the areas you’d like to grow in and what you’d like to learn about, and intentionally seek out people in those areas to meet and learn from.” This will also help you make connections for friends, clients, and colleagues, by seeing “how that person’s interests and experiences can connect them with others in your network for mutual interests and potential innovations.” She practiced that principle when she connected a student she worked with at Brown, Sidney Kushner, with Vala Afshar, an executive whose company did work for the Boston Celtics. When Afshar told the team about Kushner’s work connecting athletes with children with cancer, they decided to honor him as part of their “Heroes Among Us” program.
Not every professional feels comfortable networking, especially if they’re introverted. But Mills-Scofield often coaches them on networking, as an essential part of their innovation strategy. “Find one interesting event or conference in the next six months that’s not in your industry and go to it,” she advises. Last year, she says, “three rather introverted executives from one of my clients went to [the innovation conference] BIF with the assignment to individually meet three new people at each break, not to hang out together. They did! This led to a major shift in strategic thinking, especially on business models, that is driving the business to a whole new level.”
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her new book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter.