People rely on their connections, and the connections of their connections, to get jobs, find romantic partners, and discover new things about the world. Perhaps now more than ever the old saying applies: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. In short, your social network — the one made up of real people, not Facebook posts — is a powerful source of opportunity. This raises an obvious question: What kind of social network positions you for success?
Most people would probably say “a big one.” And it is certainly true that maintaining a large social network has its advantages. But according to academic research pioneered by Ron Burt, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, what is even more important than the size of your network is the extent to which the people you know are themselves disconnected. Burt calls people who serve as a bridge between otherwise disconnected contacts, brokers. Over the last 25 years, he and other researchers have accumulated a substantial amount of evidence documenting the benefits of being a broker in the workplace. Their research shows that brokers generate more novel ideas; get promoted faster; earn higher compensation; complete more deals; and are more influential overall. In short, brokers do better.
Why do brokers benefit?
Brokers benefit because they have access to a greater diversity of information. Knowledge within groups tends to be redundant — people in the accounting department of an organization, for example, tend to know the same things, as do people in the sales department. Having contacts who don’t know one another, however, gives brokers access to the information that each different group possesses. Imagine that people in the accounting department begin a project that provides a great lead for a person in the sales department to capitalize on. If I, as a broker, know someone in accounting and someone in sales, I am in a position to use that information to benefit both my contacts and my organization overall. Note that in this scenario, the overall number of contacts is irrelevant: a person with two contacts is in a much better position than a person with 12 contacts, as long as they are the right two contacts.
How, then, do people become brokers? This question is straightforward, but the answer is deceptively complex and the subject of a great deal of academic debate. The short answer is that it depends both on internal factors — such as your personality and social ability —and external factors, such as your role in an organization or even the location of your desk. With respect to the internal factors, it is clear that people who are outgoing and able to fit in to many different social situations have a distinct advantage when it comes to brokerage. People who are as comfortable at a dive bar as they are at a formal dinner party tend to make good brokers.
External factors can be more difficult to observe but are just as influential. In many organizations, for example, the assistant to a powerful executive is ideally positioned for brokerage by virtue of their daily responsibilities. Assistants are exposed to people from every corner of the organization as they seek face time with their boss. As a result, they are often an excellent (and generally underutilized) source of novel information. In some offices, even something as simple as having a desk near a high-traffic area — such as a water cooler or elevator — can provide brokering opportunities. In both cases, however, personality has far less bearing on brokerage potential: My professional role or physical location brings disconnected people directly to me, precluding a need to seek them out.
Are there downsides to brokerage?
There are. While brokers get the best information by focusing on the spaces between groups, this can come at the expense of building deeper relationships within groups. One ramification of this is that brokers may find it more difficult to call in favors. Put yourself in the position of a person who is being asked to grant a request: How hard would you fight for a person in your business unit with whom you share numerous contacts and with whom you interact daily? By comparison, how hard would you fight for a person outside your group who like but see less frequently and with whom you have few friends in common? This is the primary challenge that brokers face, although there are ways to address it.
Overall however, the research is clear: Being a broker constitutes a highly successful social network strategy. If you are leading or are part of a change organization, engagement with your social network is a good and informal way to move programs forward. If you want to increase your capacity for brokerage practice by doing the following:
- Capitalize on social gatherings to expand your network. It’s easy to spend most of the night talking to people you already know. Instead, set yourself a goal of meeting one or two new people before the party is over. Focus on people that are not particularly close with your contacts, but are instead relatively disconnected from the rest of your network.
- Buy lunch for someone outside your network once a month. Asking someone to lunch can be daunting, particularly when you only know them by reputation. Make it clear that you are interested in learning about some aspect of their professional expertise and would gladly cover the costs of lunch in exchange. Very few people will respond negatively to an invitation that is framed in this manner. And if the lunch goes well it can expand your network considerably by providing access to the people that your new contact (who is disconnected from your contacts) is connected with.
- Join informal committees within your organization. This involves extra work, of course. But you can reap the rewards if the committee is cross-functional and exposes you to people that you would not otherwise meet in the course of your regular responsibilities.