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Is Networking a Distraction or Important Leadership Skill?

Results-driven leaders have a bad habit of working harder and longer hours. Hard work isn't bad, but isolation is hazardous. If achievement-oriented leaders are not careful, their drive can limit career opportunities, professional success, and the joy of living. In an increasingly uncertain world, executives need high-quality relationships with followers, but also peers, and others outside the workplace. Relationships impact the leader's effectiveness and ability to get help and information necessary to innovate and solve complex issues. Here is what the evidence suggests about networking and whether it is a distraction or an essential leadership capability.

Why Networking Matters

Networking is a life skill, and it involves building personal and professional contacts and relationships with others inside and outside of the workplace. Networking relationships can span the continuum of collaboration from cooperation to integrated relationships.

Shared identity theory suggests that leaders share identity with individuals with whom they associate. And as a result, leaders are more likely to trust and influence those individuals than individuals and groups with whom they do not associate.

The documented workplace benefits of networking include:

In one study, high-performing leaders were found to establish high-quality networks and use those connections to establish better priorities and obtain necessary resources, support, and approvals for their team. The study also revealed that leader networking effectiveness of low-performing leaders was attributed to a lack of awareness associated with a lack of relationships.

However, not all studies reveal a consistent positive association between networking and effective leadership. A recent study found the relationship between networking, business results, and leadership effectiveness more involved. The impact of networking appears to be moderated by the leader's ability to apply two different leadership behaviors:

  1. Representing - the ability to promote the group's interests and coordinate activities.

  2. Monitoring – scanning the environment for information and locating other people or groups that can help or potentially hinder team goals.

In other words, if the networking is primarily self-oriented toward building friendships or advancing your career, the benefits on leadership effectiveness are less likely.

How to Grow Your Professional Network

A good starting point is to look internally at your organization. As you advance your career, your external network will become increasingly important, and you will want to make the most of your professional associations and conferences.

Examples of potential network contacts include:

  • Peers and co-workers from prior employers

  • Past vendors, suppliers, and clients

  • Professional connections from conferences

  • Alumni from universities you attended

  • Friends, neighbors, spiritual community members

  • Professional organization members

  • Professional service providers such as your accountant or insurance provider

Using LinkedIn is a great networking hack for finding new connections and staying connected as time passes and people change jobs. Next, you need to get organized.

You will be most effective with networking when you are prepared. I suggest you follow these steps to get started and remember that networking is a skill to be developed.

Step1: Check your Motivation

Evidence suggests that you will achieve more success if your focus is on growth and advancement instead of avoiding the negative consequences of not networking. Create a positive vision in your mind that will result from your networking. You are ready to start when your motivation and vision are primarily positive, and your paradigm is that networking is a critical leadership skill.

Step 2: Be deliberate

Remember, networking is more than exchanging business cards. You want to be interesting and interested in the other person. Think through the aspects of your current position and where you could use some support. Then create three questions in advance of your meetings based on your needs.

Step 3: Schedule a networking meeting

Using a short 20-minute meeting is a great way to be respectful of your contact's time. Keep your conversations focused. Spend the first couple of minutes connecting over a high-level topic. Shift and provide a short one-minute update on what you are doing now. Then use the bulk of your time to discuss your three prepared in advance questions. You may want to ask if they know anyone else you should connect with to help you learn more about your questions. End with asking if there is anything you could discuss that would help support them and wrap up your meeting.

Step 4: Follow-up

After the meeting, following up with a short thank you note for their time and help never hurts. Also, you will want to stay connected since you have invested in this relationship. Setting reminders at a frequency that makes sense can help you not lose track of this network relationship.

Conclusion: Is Networking a Distraction or Important Leadership Skill?

Growing and cultivating high-quality networks takes an investment of time and energy. Effective leaders understand the value of their network relationships. Being curious and deliberate is the best way to prevent your networking investment from being a distraction and maximize the return on your investment.

Who do you need to get in your network? What information or experiences do you need to leverage?


Ballinger, M., & Perez, N. (2012). The 20-minute networking meeting - Executive edition: Learn to get a job. Career Innovations Press.

Druskat, V.U. and Wheeler, J.V. (2003). Managing from the boundary: The effective leadership of self-managing work-teams. Academy of Management Journal. 46 (4), pp. 435-457.

Hassan, S., Prussia, G., Mahsud, R., & Yukl, G. (2018). How leader networking, external monitoring, and representing are relevant for effective leadership. Leadership & Organization Development Journal.

Johansen, M. and LeRoux, K. (2013). Managerial networking in nonprofit organizations: The impact of networking on organizational and advocacy effectiveness. Public Administration Review. 73 (2). pp. 355-363.

O'Leary, R., & Bingham, L. (2009) The collaborative public manager. Georgetown University Press.

Pollack, J., Forster, W., Johnson, P., Coy, A., & Molden, D. (2015). Promotion and prevention-focused networking and its consequences for entrepreneurial success. Social and Psychological Personality Science. 6(1) pp. 3-12.


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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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