Networking Magic: Discover The Power Of “Weak Ties”

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Photo courtesy of David Burkus

[The following is the full raw transcript for a LEADx Podcast interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Kevin Kruse: Hey everyone, welcome back. Kevin Kruse here, welcome to the LEADx Leadership Show, where we are helping you to become a great manager, a great leader, at work and at home. Now, I believe there are four secrets to amazing success, and secret number two is your social network, the strength of your social network, and today, I actually speak to a brother from another mother. We share the same book agent, we used to share the same speaking agent until I went independent, and we talk about the power of weak ties and I think the best part of this interview, he gives me a great question that we should all be asking people when we meet them, people in our existing network. It's a question we can just go to all of the time. I love it.

So before we begin, I want to let you know that my businesses have changed dramatically when I started holding one-on-one meetings. People call them O3s, one-on-ones. If you want to learn who to hold one-on-ones with, what the agenda of an O3 meeting should be, and tips to make them successful, visit leadx.org and get the three-day free trial so you can just check out the course.

Our quote of the day, “Friendship is always a sweet responsibility, never an opportunity.” That's from Khalil Gibran, and since we're talking about friends and our networks, I couldn't help but also share this one from Oscar Wilde: “True friends stab you in the front.” Love that.

Our guest today is an associate professor of leadership and innovation at Oral Roberts University. He's a keynote speaker and his TEDx Talk has been viewed over 1.8 million times. I am so jealous. He's the bestselling author of several books, and his new book is called Friend of a Friend: Understanding the Hidden Networks That Can Transform Your Life and Your Career. It offers readers a new perspective on how to grow their networks and build key connections. The traditional things you think about in terms of networking, they don't work and they're just no longer true. Our guest is David Burkus. David, welcome to the show.

David Burkus: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I'm a big fan, so this is … and we have so many friends of friends in common, it just seems appropriate.

Kruse: We have a lot of industry friends, as well. It's nice to do this and meet you like this face-to-face. I always start with the same first question, which is, what leadership advice would you give to a first-time manager, a new manager?

Burkus: Yeah, so I guess my biggest advice would be: pay attention to the people who are around you. One of the big jumps that happens, is you come out as an individual contributor, you jump into a leadership role, and it's really tempting to say, “Okay, now I need to be circling around and interacting with the other managers and sort of only focusing on networking up and managing up for my career.” The truth is, the people you just came from are going to give you the most honest feedback. Right? In reality, you need people influencing your decisions from all levels of an organization, including outside. So pay attention to the people that are around you, make sure that you're not just hearing it from one side, because it's one of the biggest mistakes I think a new manager can make is only listening to what orders they've been given instead of what the people that are around them are saying, as well.

Kruse: Love it. Getting that perspective from multiple levels. And David, your new book again is Friend of a Friend. Before we went on air, I told you, you know, big fan of the book. Love the cover in particular. It's like wow, that's one of the strongest covers I've seen in awhile. Let's just start, what's the big idea of Friend of a Friend?

Burkus: Yeah, so the big idea, and by the way, I'll brag on the cover all day long, too. I had nothing to do with it, so I think it's pretty cool. The big idea is that we need to redefine networking. For a lot of people, networking is a four-letter word, even though it's a 10-letter word, it's a four-letter word, and when I use it, people think of going to that cocktail party or reaching out to strangers on LinkedIn. Fundamentally, they think trying to meet strangers, and we need to redefine it. It's not so much about adding new connections to your contact app on your phone or anything like that. It's about understanding the network that we're already in. You don't have a network, you exist inside of a network of your industry, of your organization, et cetera, and the best networkers are the people that understand that the cleanest and then begin to navigate that network, as opposed to just trying to run up the count of people they know.

Kruse: Yeah, that's a great premise, because I think often, that is what we think of. It's sort of like a numbers game, how many people follow you on social media, how many people are you connected on LinkedIn, how many business cards did you collect at the trade show or something. It's often about that number, and in fact, you talk about this concept that weak ties can be more valuable than strong ones. So I mean, in some ways, you're saying the numbers might count when it comes to weak ties. Talk about this concept.

Burkus: Yeah, so really we have to set weak ties off as different from total strangers and different from close contacts. Right? So if you think about a network as a three-dimensional object as opposed to just a list of people you know, then we're going to probably use distance to you to signify the strength of the relationship. Right? So you have your close contacts, they're the people that if I drew out your network would be the closest other circles around you. And then there are people that are a bit further out, we call those your weak ties or your dormant ties. They're people that you know but you don't know that well or they're people that you did know really well for a time, but for some reason or another, it fell by the wayside. Right?

What a lot of us do is we circle around our close contacts and then when that dries up, we jump right to “Let's meet strangers. Let's see if we can serendipitously find the perfect person for us at that speed dating for professionals event we just went to.” Right? And what we're neglecting are those people in the middle. Your weak ties and your dormant ties have the same benefit as new contacts. They have new access to information, new potential referrals, new perspectives, new opportunities, but like your close contacts, they already know, like, and trust you. Right?

So in my opinion, they're the most potent people in your network because they think and act differently than you, they're around people who are different than you, but it's a lot easier to re-establish rapport because you already had it at one point, you just need to sort of reestablish it rather than take a total stranger, turn them into a friend and then start that relationship. It's far easier to reach out to those weak and dormant ties.

Kruse: Now, in that great answer, you actually dropped some language, some words that are pretty powerful, and I've heard them a hundred times from my marketing friends, but I'm not sure that my audience members will be as familiar. You said, “Know, like, and trust you.” So unpack that a little, as they say. Why are those three things so important? What are you talking about?

Burkus: Yeah, so it's definitely a sales … it's one of those weird things where sales and marketing were actually ahead of the science. Right? So when we think about somebody that we want to do business with, when we think about somebody we want to interact with, somebody we want to trust, we judge them on basically really in psychological terms, we judge them on warmth and competence. Right? Warmth would be that “Do I like you, do I feel comfortable around you?” et cetera. Competence would be that, “Do I trust that you actually have expertise?”

The easier way to say warmth and competence is that, “Do I know you?” That's the first step, but then, “Do I like and trust you?” Warmth and competence, do I have those things? In order to sort of have a working business relationship or really any relationship with someone, we have to believe that they are warm towards us, that we like them and they like us, and also that we can trust their competence. So know, like, and trust is that sort of simple marketing phrase that turns out to be about 20 years ahead of the social science research on how people click.

Kevin Kruse: Love that, and on this concept of “Hey, don't just jump out to strangers. Go to your weak ties,” are there any rules of thumb? Is it like, hey, you should be talking to your second ring once a quarter or once a year or I don't know, is there any guidelines or does it not work like that?

David Burkus: Yeah, so there are some people that do that, and I support that idea of setting like a, “Okay, I need to be interacting this number of times with these number of contacts,” et cetera. There's software that can even help you keep track of that, and I don't knock those people at all. I love how intentional they are. I really encourage people just to make it a habit to be regularly re-engaging. Right? So for most of us, this is actually where social media can actually come into play, all right? If you think about your LinkedIn newsfeed or your Facebook newsfeed or Twitter, you're inundated with information. Most people are frustrated now because there's so much stuff from people they barely remember. Those are all your weak ties, and they're broadcasting information about what's going on in their life that you can use a regular springboard to reach back out to that person. Send them an email, a text message, a phone call. Say, “Hey, I just saw you announced this thing. You're changing jobs, congratulations.” Right?

What so many of us do is take the passive, click like and comment or just scroll through or even just hide them, right, like snooze them and go, “Oh, this person's a weak tie. I don't need to see this.” The truth is, you do. We just need to make it a regular habit to be reaching back out to this person. So I don't really set rules as far as this many people, this … but I would say go for once a week can you reconnect with some weak or dormant tie at least once a week, using information that they're broadcasting anyway? That's a pretty solid habit to get into, that'll serve you really well.

Kevin Kruse: Yeah, what I like about that is that it sets aside this idea that everything has to be a coffee meeting, so it's like “Oh, to keep in touch with my weak ties, I need to go out and spend all my time in these coffee meetings,” and time is so short, but like you said, this is a good use, a healthy use of social media. Pay attention to what's going on in people's lives or professional lives and reach out accordingly. It doesn't need to be a big meeting.

David Burkus: Yeah, I mean, I hate to break it to a lot of people, but nobody wants to go to coffee with you.

Kevin Kruse: Not anymore.

David Burkus: I mean, sometimes they do, but we think about like, do you have 15 minutes for a coffee? It's not 15 minutes. It's like an hour, but then you've got to drive there or walk there, so we're talking about like two hours investment. Right? What I'm talking about takes 60 seconds. Right? They broadcasted that they just changed jobs and they're moving to Chicago, so you write, “Hey, congratulations,” maybe add a little piece of value in there, like, “Congratulations, I saw you're moving to Chicago for a new job. By the way, Gino's East is the best. Don't waste your time with all the other places.” Right? A little valuable piece of info like that, and then a simple like, “Besides that, what else is new with you?” And maybe it turns into a phone call or something like that, but it's just a short little like, “Hey, I want you to know that you're still on my radar. I still care about you. I'm still going to give you advice and practical things that are of value to you.” Right? So that relationship is reengaged. Try for the coffee when you actually really need to have a deep conversation with that person, but the fact that you don't have two hours doesn't mean you can't re-engage with somebody every couple of months.

Kevin Kruse: Yeah, that's great. You know, David, in my own entrepreneurial experience, I've often focused on just one industry and found that that's been helpful to me and have given that advice to others, but you say that straddling the gap between several industries is more effective than just focusing on dominating one industry.

David Burkus: Yeah, so there's actually kind of a delicate dance. This is where the science meets the art, right? So in the book, we talk about a theory known as the theory of structural holes. This is one of the earlier network science phenomenons, and it's essentially the idea that if you think about networks, they tend to cluster. Right? They're not egalitarian like a piece of graph paper where everybody is connected to everybody else. They cluster around, they have nooks and crannies, and in that space between two different communities is what we call a structural hole, and it turns out that information doesn't flow very freely between those two structural holes.

Now, we know this in organizational life because we call these silos. Right? We talk about silos, politics, and turf wars. The same thing happens in industries, and it turns out that you can unlock a tremendous amount of value for the industry, but also for yourself, by being the bridge between those two communities, those two structural holes. Now, where the art meets the science is that you have to have a deep enough level of respect and community sort of inside the one industry, so you have to know enough people to where you could actually bring them over and make that connection. You can't just be that new person on the fringes of the industry going, “I think we should talk to this other community.” You're just going to look like a crazy person.

But once you've sort of penetrated that area, you have enough connections in that area, it's time to maybe stop trying to meet extra new people in that industry, because every new person you meet's kind of going to be a little redundant, like there's a critical mass of contacts in an industry you can have, and start thinking about what other industries can I connect this community to that will unlock a lot of value for both communities, and that value has sort of a spillover effect to you as the bridge.

Kevin Kruse: Love it. And just to sort of wrap it up, I like to challenge our listeners. I say, “Just get a little bit better every single day.” I like to give them a challenge. So based on the big premise of Friend of a Friend, what's an action that our listeners can do today, something they can say, “Oh, I just heard this podcast, I'm going to go spend five minutes or 30 minutes or whatever it is and go do this thing”?

David Burkus: Yeah, so I would do the social media hack we were just talking about, that's 60 seconds. Right? Now I have 29 other minutes to work with. No, I would do that, and I would also get in the habit of asking a really specific question of a lot of your contacts, “Who do you know in blank?” Who do you know in blank? You're not asking for an introduction or a referral yet, what you're doing is you're trying to explore the fringes of the network, with blank being whatever industry or community or sector that you're trying to get to know a little bit better. You're not asking for introductions yet. You don't have an agenda yet. You're just trying to figure out who is a friend of a friend, right, to use the book title. Who is one degree of separation out from me? I want to get a feel for what's on the fringes of my network. So step one, reach back out to those weak ties. Takes about 60 seconds. Step two, get in the habit of regularly asking your current contacts, “Who do you know in blank?” with blank being wherever you want to go.

Kevin Kruse: I am a big believer in the power of questions and that is a powerful question. I'm going to use that myself quite a bit. So David, how can our listeners find out more about you and your new book?

David Burkus: So the best place is probably … Well, the best place is probably all the show notes and stuff that you do, right?

Kevin Kruse: Exactly.

David Burkus: Because I know you're going to link to all of it anyway, and we want people to go there. Second best place is probably davidburkus.com. From there, you can look at a bunch of different resources about the book that are totally free. I mean obviously, I hope you buy the book in triplicate, but more importantly, I hope you look at some of the resources, some of the advice. I hope that we can change the conversation about what networking is, and then the other thing we can do is connect there on whatever social media, email, whatever that you want to do to keep the conversation going. So not only are we going to change the conversation, let's keep it going, so davidburkus.com is probably a good place for both of those.

Kevin Kruse: Great, David, we will link to that web address and of course to your book on Amazon in the show notes, and I encourage everyone to take action on that challenge and remember to ask, “Who do you know in blank?”

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Kevin Kruse
NY Times bestselling author, Inc 500 entrepreneur, and keynote speaker on Wholehearted Leadership and Extreme Productivity. Download 'How Millionaires Plan Their Day: A 1-Page Tool' at http://kevinkruse.leadpages.co/1page/