Make Your Network a Career Asset


Communication_Speech_Bubble_DesignHave you ever wondered about the differentiators for success? Why do two candidates, equally well prepared for success, perform so differently on the job? Or, why a seemingly less prepared candidate delivers more than expected stars? Research suggests that there may be several key differentiators. Among them is one YOU can do something about: How effectively you develop and use your social network for learning.

The use of social networks for learning is not a new idea. A 1985 study studying differentiators between average and star performers at Bell Labs gives us an early hint.  Bell Labs only hired smart people, so brains weren’t an issue. The study examined why some of the smart people delivered exceptional performance and why other smart people were stuck in average. Robert Kelley of Carnegie Mellon found that Bell’s star performers invested in establishing a diverse set of relationships with experts in related fields. Average performers, on the other hand, limited their relationships to those in similar roles. When they needed help, star performers reached into an expert network that helped them understand a problem from diverse perspectives, while average performers tapped into people who had the same limited line of site.

Lucky for us, the ability to build a diverse expert network today is far easier than in 1985. Experts from almost any imaginable field around the globe are available at our fingertips through numerous social media sites. Interesting thinkers share their observations through blogs. Today, if you want to find and build relationships with experts in almost any field and almost anyplace, you can do it.  The great news is that those of you who build and tend to your networks can expect better job performance. Two recent reports, one from published research and the other from internal company results, support this idea.

In the published report, three researchers from M.I.T. examined results of social learning using investment results.  Yaniv Altshuler, Wei Pan and Sandy Petland, examined investment results from EToro, an online trading platform with a social learning component built in. EToro allows users to use different trading strategies. Users can trade on their own, copy other trades or follow particular traders to review what they do and evaluate their results for ideas. During 2011, Altshuler, Pan and Petland examined over 10 million transactions from this site. Their analysis indicates that traders that achieved the best returns were those who had an original idea, but engaged a focused but diverse network of other traders to evaluate their idea. The best performers did not operate in isolation, nor did they simply “follow the herd” and blindly copy the majority.  The key conclusion is that carefully cultivated networks that can build on ideas with diverse perspectives contribute to success.

Last week, I attended a conference where an executive of a major U.S. based retailer presented results that support the Bell Labs and M.I.T. research. This retailer launched a closed community system (e.g. a private LinkedIn or Facebook) for their retail employees. Employees could connect with colleagues from other stores that they would otherwise not meet. They could source expertise and information not available in their location. Guess what? The best performing sales people did. Those who sold the most high-ticket items used their network for information and insight. Some may argue that this is a chicken and egg challenge. Would the best sales people have been the best sales people without their network? I don’t know. But my experience in talent development suggests that in any occupation, find out what the consistently best in class do to differentiate their performance and try to duplicate those characteristics. In the case of this retailer, the best in class cultivate and engage an expert network- just like at Bell Labs and the EToro traders.

What about you? How do you cultivate a network of people who can give you perspectives and advice? Is your network diverse enough to give you a well-rounded perspective? Does it make a difference?


Pentland, A. (2013). Beyond the Echo Chamber. Harvard Business Review, October, 2013.

Commencement Season Musings



Commencement season is one of my favorite times of the year. I love its spirit of celebration, sense of optimism and the energy of possibility. Who doesn’t get inspired by a well-crafted commencement speech? The vivid descriptions of opportunities and passionate exhortations motivate new graduates and old listeners alike to do just a little better.

My single beef about commencement season and its messages is that the events often fail to connect “the future” with “today.” Too frequently, commencement messages emphasize future achievement at the expense of current reality. As T.S. Elliot reminds us, “There are no endings, only additions.”  That’s how greatness is developed; it’s an accumulation of experiences day after day after day.

Once again this year, no one has invited me to be a commencement speaker. Good thing I have a blog to share The Development Sherpa’s advice to new graduates.

Make the Most of Your First Job

The good news is that as a college graduate, you are more likely to get a job. According to The New York Times, college graduates are the only group that has more members employed today than before the recession began. The bad news is that it may not be the job you expected.  The job market is still very tight and employers are still quite picky. Your first post college job may involve more grunt work than glamour.

You may be tempted to blow off your low skilled job as you wait for your “real one.” Don’t.  As discouraged as you may be to be behind a receptionist desk, filing papers or renting cars, you can learn a lot from any job that requires you to deal directly with customers, work with others and work for someone. You can develop the interpersonal skills necessary for that next, better job when it comes along. According to research by Drs. Joyce Hogan and Kimberly Brinkmeyer, strong interpersonal skills are a requirement for 84% of management jobs, the kind you seek. If your job requires effective client contact and collaboration with associates, you are building skills important in future roles. Practice what you’ve studied about working in groups, conflict resolution and communication. If you want to ditch your low wage, low skill “starter” job, do your best and learn from it.

Use Social Media Skills as a Learning Advantage

You are among the most digitally connected generation so far. Make your exceptional social media skills an advantage to your success. My colleagues Keeley Sorotki and Jeff Merrell might encourage you to build a PLN – Personal Learning Network – using your social media skills. Never before has a generation of workers had access to so many world-class thinkers and every day practitioners in their field. Use this access to build your own network to challenge and inspire you, starting now. Don’t wait until you need a network of experts to build one.

Engage With the Broader World

The world is becoming smaller and faster. You’ve probably had splendid opportunities to travel, learn a second (or third) language and study with people from many cultures.  Remain curious about the world. The May, 2013 edition of the Harvard Business Review describes the advantages of the “global elite” and offers suggestions you (yes, you) can use to become one. Keep up your language skills; a adopted language is a “use it or lose it” proposition. Understand current events from around the world, and understand them from different perspectives. Read world history; the way things “were” explains the way things “are.” If you can, travel.  Your dream job will probably never be isolated and insulated from social and political events. Be ready.

Skin Your Knees

When do you skin your knees? When you’re going somewhere. When you run and trip. When you carry the ball and get tackled. When you fall off a bike. You may focus on the fall. Focus instead on the fact you were trying to get somewhere.

When you do the things necessary to build your layers of greatness, you will skin your knees. You will take a risk and slip. You will try something new and fall. You will make a mistake and feel some pain. Of course, you could avoid all this by staying in the same place. But then you won’t achieve the unique greatness that you are meant to achieve. One of my favorite quotes is from Steve Maraboli: “Life doesn’t get easier or more forgiving. We get stronger and more resilient.”

Final Words

So, my dear graduates, your greatness doesn’t start “someday.” It starts today. It starts from wherever you are with every day decisions and actions. Don’t waste today dreaming about your opportunities for tomorrow. Be the person you are meant to be. Today.