5 Ways to Use Your Networks to Strengthen Your Story

Oct 10 / Julie Jones
Organizations today are living organisms involving a series of interconnected relationships. These relationships form the foundation of your networks. It can be easy for leaders to go it alone and focus their energies solely on internal operations, given the disruptions to work in the past year. What has happened to the value of your network during this time? It is more important than ever to foster external connections in your organization and beyond and allow these individuals to provide support for you and your team.

Developing, reestablishing, or strengthening new or existing relationships will prop up, validate, and extend the reach of your influence as a leader and are vital to strengthening your story.  For example, individuals in your networks can help solve operational issues, serve as mentors and sponsors for you and your team, and help move ideas and collaborative projects forward. These individuals can also tell your story more broadly in the organization and with more influence than you might have alone.

People evaluate you and your team's reputation based on their perspectives. When you have strong networks, people in your networks weigh in and share their opinions of you and your team, which can carry more weight.   Ibarra and Hunter, leadership researchers and authors, describe three networks - personal, operational, and strategic - you need as a leader which are described following the blog post.

All three networks are essential because their impacts are different.  The ability to establish trust and build positive, productive relationships with others creates the most robust networks.   Trust is the foundational element – others trust you have their best interest in mind, they trust you are making the right decisions, they trust your competence, they trust you will be collaborative, they trust you are fair and inclusive, and the list could go on.  When trust exists, they support you as the leader and are willing to follow and support you.   

Many years ago at a previous job, we were simultaneously planning an extensive kitchen renovation project and a large replacement hospital. New hospital buildings are expensive to build, so a full kitchen was not planned for the new building.  Instead, we planned to renovate our existing kitchens to support both the new and existing buildings. The challenge we faced was how to secure significant funding for a kitchen renovation when most people were focused on the design, technology, financing, and furnishings for a new tower.

For a few years, we submitted capital budget requests without gaining significant traction. We were getting worried we wouldn't have the capacity to handle the new tower and existing building meal demands. Words on a page attached to large numbers didn't tell the whole story of what needed to be accomplished. How could we approach our funding proposal differently? We decided perhaps others could help us tell our story.  

We had a good relationship with one of the chief financial officers (CFO) in our organization. We developed and managed budgets well, and when needed, made and delivered reductions in budgets to meet targets. We were low maintenance but, hopefully, high-value contributors. During the construction planning, I also had the opportunity to co-lead a related project with the physician leader of the new hospital tower.

These two individuals were vital in helping us tell our story differently to achieve funding for the project and ongoing support for our team. 

With the help of these individuals, we used these five tactics to strengthen our story in the organization.  

1.       Frame the Story

We approached our CFO to brainstorm ways to tell our story more effectively. We sought his advice and provided a behind-the-scenes tour of our kitchens. We were able to show him the challenges we currently faced and what additional issues could be expected after the new tower construction. The tour helped him make sense of our operations at a high level so he could explain them to others.   He helped create the table of contents for our story – a 3-year capital budget plan for funding. He translated our story into actionable language and buckets of "work" for the senior leader team.  

2.       Brainstorm Story Lines

The CFO also helped us better understand the novel. What else is missing in our story? He shared other impacts and priorities for the organization and noted others who could have a place in our story.  He felt our project could support broader organization needs. We learned that enlarging our story, gaining support from others, and forming alliances created additional value for our project.

3.       Introduction to the Story or Book

At times, we needed others to introduce our story to key decision-makers. The CFO included us in upcoming meeting agendas to present our story to senior leader groups. He acted as our advocate and sponsor.  He was a co-presenter of our story to these groups allowing us to have greater impact by adding his credibility to our financial plan and project.  

4.       Edit your Story

Sometimes our plans are too aggressive, and progress will be better than perfect. Our networks helped us answer the questions, "What is possible?" "What is a priority?" A natural tendency is to throw in more than you need since you think it's a one-shot opportunity for funding. Our CFO planned methods of adding layers to the project. In his experience, you can't accomplish projects of this magnitude overnight. His insight helped us see the big picture and continue to chip away at the remaining layers over time. He helped us with both progress and patience.     

5.       Goodreads™ Story Review - Qualify your Contributions and Describe the Impact

The physician leader became one of our sideline cheerleaders publicly and privately in meetings throughout the new tower construction project. Like a Goodreads™ review, others paid attention to his words. Plus, having others support you, your team, and the work you do grew our team's confidence. 

We were fortunate to have strong voices who were willing to support our team. But it started with us and our ability to build relationships, deliver on commitments and achieve targets, and consistently contribute in broad ways for the organization. The work and results we achieved daily built our network "savings" account. When we needed to withdraw some networking "funds" to help us move our project vision forward with senior leaders, we had the additional network backing necessary for our story.

Ask yourself these questions:
  • Did I do my best today to build relationships and networks to help extend our story?
  • How strong are my personal networks?  
  • How full is our network savings account?
  • How well have I and my team built operational networks that support our work?
  • What could I or we do differently?
  • How well have we established strategic relationships and partnerships?
  • How willing are others to tell my or our team's stories?

How Leaders Create and Use Networks
Adapted from: Ibarra, H. and Hunter, M. Harvard Business Review. January 2007.

Personal networks

  • Personal network of support for you and your development
  • Individuals who support, mentor, sponsor, coach, or challenge you and your development
  • Exchange important referrals and outside information
  • Professional, alumni, or volunteer associations or personal interest communities

Operational Networks

  • The first network you build when you are new to an organization – those people intersect your work
  • Coordination and cooperation required to achieve work
  • The primary intent is to resolve issues, concerns, and operating needs for today and the near future
  • Key colleagues that impact success and can supply insight into challenges faced in your role

Strategic Networks

  • Strategic network of support in your broader organization and beyond
  • Keys sponsors, influencers, or alliances can open a door, endorse you and your team, and extend your influence
  • Influential themselves and can impact others
  • Do not underestimate the power of these networks to assist in navigating organizational politics and negotiating on your behalf
Don't hesitate

Check out the Building Relationships Course to learn more about relationships and networks.