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The Ideal Professional Network

We’ve all encountered people whose primary goal is to create a vast network of “contacts”. They have an enormous collection of Facebook friends and they exchange business cards with everyone they meet, inviting one and all into their LinkedIn network. These folks super-size.

But what do their “contacts” actually mean to them? Do such collectors of contacts follow networking best practices and act as a resource? Would they even recognize many of their “contacts” if they ran into them at the grocery store? Too often, the answer is no.

I’ve had the experience of being sucked into the clutches of a super-networker or two and found that when I emailed an easy and uncomplicated question, my inquiry went unanswered. I eventually severed the associations, but I’m sure my absence is neither missed nor even noticed. Who can keep track of or maintain contact with 500 connections?

So I’m happy to report that there is data that supports my long-held gut feeling about networking. Apparently, when it comes to our network of relationships, size matters and smaller is better.

Robert Cross, Associate Professor at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce and Robert Thomas, Executive Director of the global consulting firm Accenture’s Institute for High Performance, contend that the most effective networks focus on high-quality relationships, ideally with people who come from diverse levels of the corporate and/or socioeconomic hierarchy.

Cross and Thomas found that a properly functioning network consists of about 12-18 people. The ideal network provides guidance, exposes us to fresh approaches to decision-making and problem-solving, challenges us to achieve new goals and also gives us validation and encouragement.

A diversity of professional and personal interactions pays numerous dividends, socially and professionally. We get to meet and rub shoulders with those who’ve lived different lives and therefore have different values, perspectives and experiences. We learn how to become more flexible and resilient. Our decision-making capabilities improve because we incorporate additional information and we become better leaders and better business people.

Take a look at who you know and who you consider to be a member of your network. Who looks out for you and who do you look out for? Cross and Thomas recommend that we cultivate relationships in these categories:

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