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.