Personal Connections count but not the ones you think

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Previously I outlined the four ways board appointments are made. It refers to a recent study found that an overwhelming 65% of current board members gained their most recent board appointment via personal connections, and an overwhelming 80% were appointed without any formal application process. 

Yes – personal connections count

For many, this study’s findings will not be a surprise and confirms what you already assumed to be true – that personal connections count. Malcolm Gladwell put it well when he said:

“People were nearly three times as likely to have found their job through personal contacts than through an advertisement, headhunter or other formal means.”

So, the question you should be asking yourself is not, are personal connections valuable? But instead, ‘What connections are valuable, and how can you leverage them?’ This is what I want to delve into today. 

First up, when I tell people that personal connections count, then one of three things usually happens: 

  1. They say they don’t have the sort of connections required,
  2. They say that they aren’t natural networkers, or
  3. They start thinking about the personal connections they have already and how they might be able to utilise these relationships.

These initial reactions leave people feeling that they have lost before they have even begun. Let me assure you that this is not at all the case. Let me explain why.

  1. Very few people will initially have the personal connections they need to get their first board appointment, and people do get appointed. Once you adjust your thinking, learning how to develop and maintain the right personal connections is something you can learn.
  2. There are very few people that we would cite as “natural networkers”. Most of us hate the thought of networking. Cocktail parties, working the room and exchanging business cards are exercises many loath. You will be happy to know that this is not the type of networking that will lead to a board appointment. The key to developing personal connections that facilitate board appointments is, to get in front of the right people with something authentic and genuine to say.
  3. Finally, it is a mistake to think that the people you know will be of most value to developing your board career. Fewer than 15% of all board appointments occur through (strong ties) people you see regularly or frequently. Focusing on these people alone means you miss out on the 50% of board appointments made via (weak ties) people you see rarely or infrequently. 

Strong Vs weak ties

When posed with the importance of developing personal connections, most people immediately think of approaching their Strong Ties. Non-Executive Directors, peers or colleagues with whom they already have an established relationship, are known by and trusted, and believe can help. You feel comfortable approaching them since they are people you know well and know you well. They are probably people you work with, family, close friends, or colleagues you see regularly. Here the relationship is relational – i.e. it has an emotional element. But it is the emotional and/or familiarity aspects of these relationships that are the problem. You are often too close to them; the tie or connection is too strong. 

Perversely, it is the Weak Ties that will make you more compelling and successful. Think of weak ties as contacts and connectors. Contacts are people you see rarely or infrequently. Connectors are people you want to know because they can provide access to people who can facilitate board opportunities. Here the relationship is transactional – i.e. it has a limited emotional element. Studies have shown that perhaps up to 50% of all board appointments occur through personal connections.

Personal Connections VS Networking

You may have noticed that I don’t often use the terms networks or networking. There is a specific reason for this; the term networking has negative connotations for many. While networking has its place, it is not for everyone. Moreover, it is often a hit-and-miss exercise, entirely dependent on who turns up to the event (and when), who is in the room while you are (did you just miss them or were they speaking with someone else when you were available), and who you speak with (not enough). Developing personal connections is different, and when well planned and orchestrated, it will most likely get you appointed. 

But, and there is a but, not all connections are equally. My next couple of articles will help you understand who to develop connections with, who not to, how to find them and how to connect.

In Summary

Developing personal connections is not nearly as difficult as it sounds once you identify the right people to connect with to help you with your board career is far easier than you might think. It is just one of the things that I work through personally, and in great detail, with my Non-Executive Director Program clients.

About the Author

David Schwarz is CEO & Founder of Board Direction – Australia’s leading board advertising and non-executive career support firm. He has over a decade of experience of putting people on boards as an international headhunter and a non-executive recruiter and has interviewed over one thousand non-executives and placed hundreds into some of the most significant public, private and NFP roles in the world

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