Prof. James Baron on Building an Effective Network

Your network is made up of two different kinds of relationships: strong and weak. A strong tie is a good friend, colleague, or family member; a weak tie is someone you know only casually or even just virtually. Which is more likely to help you build an effective professional network?

In a workshop with students in the MBA for Executives program on September 1, James Baron, the William S. Beinecke Professor of Management, said that, perhaps counterintuitively, it’s the weak ties that are most effective in boosting your career.

Strong ties, he explained, tend to be with people who are very similar to you, which means that their own networks of strong ties overlap significantly with yours. Weak ties—friends-of-friends, neighbors you only know in passing, and people you may meet at a conference or playing a sport—offer access to people who are different and disparate sources of information.

“The goal is to forge and maintain ‘strong’ weak ties,” said Baron. “These are the most valuable relationships. These are the people most likely to help you boost your career.”

Baron provided students with tips for making weak ties stronger:

  • Get to know the whole person. Leverage common interests and backgrounds. “Find the small openings that might create the possibility for connection,” he said.
  • Put time into relationships. Maintaining weak ties is more time consuming than maintaining strong ties: “Networks are the capital most managers rely on to get stuff done. Putting time into them is essential.”
  • When you’re deciding whether to pursue job assignments or join membership associations, make choices that diversify your network of contacts. That network “positions you for the possibility of pursuing a number of different future paths.”
  • Do favors for people. Maintain a “favor bank” balance in your favor. “You want people to feel that you’ve done more for them lately than they’ve done for you.”
  • Frame your interactions in a way where people will act sympathetically or in a friendly manner. How you frame things can affect the perception of your “favor bank.” “You want to make it salient for them,” he said, “so they appreciate all the things you are doing for them.”
  • Leverage indirect connections. If it is challenging to forge connections directly, find another way. For instance, who knows the people you want to know? Who among your connections feels beholden to you and can in turn make this new connection? “This can appear pretty Machiavellian, even if it’s not. But it opens up a lot of opportunities.”

About the Event

Professor Jim Baron will lead a workshop for MBA for Executives students titled “Building Networks and Social Capital.”

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