Internal Networking

As the team that acted as the sole filter of work assignments from the home office to the stores, my team and I effectively became the “crossroads” of the company – more than any other department, we knew and had great relationships with people in other departments. We had to: our success relied upon it because the time to build a relationship with someone is not when you need to influence them – that’s too late.

I see a lot of articles about how to build a strong external network, but a thriving internal network is also critical to your success. Here are some things you can do to tighten those connections:

Analyze Your Network Map

One day a team member asked for guidance – they were struggling with getting someone on-board with a new policy. I asked if they had talked to one of the other team members who worked with that partner on a regular basis. They realized they weren’t leveraging the influencers that were already on the team. I wondered what other opportunities we had to leverage our internal network.

At the next team meeting, I led the team on a network mapping exercise. I handed out pads of tiny sticky notes and pens, set a timer for 5 minutes, and told them to list all their connections, one name per note, as quickly as possible, no talking, GO! When the timer went off, I reset it for another 5 minutes, while we stuck the notes on the wall, and grouped them by name and by department. When the timer went off again, we had a pretty good network map. There was a lot of overlap – everyone worked closely with Learning & Development, our sister department. And there were surprising gaps – no one felt like we had the relationship we needed with Human Resources.

How did we grow that relationship? We made sure that any request they made of us received priority attention. Even if we could have responded by email, we made sure we responded by phone or even in person if they were in our building. We made sure our interactions with them were transformational not transactional. We added value to the work we did with them, and we made sure we dropped by for a quick Hi when we were passing their neighborhood.

I knew we had succeeded the day that HR invited us to their annual meeting. They asked us to talk about our work to their whole team, how we worked together, what our strategies and objectives were.

NBWA (Networking by Walking Around)

Another technique I developed for myself was the walk-around. Whenever I had a couple of hours open on my calendar, I took the elevator to the top floor of the building and walked the halls.  If someone I had met was in their office with the door open and looked interruptible (if they had the mid-budget look on their face I kept walking), I poked my head in.  “I was just in the neighborhood,” I said, “and wanted to check in to make sure you were receiving everything you needed from my team.” Sometimes I was more specific, asking about a project we had worked on together. They always smiled. Most of the time, they said, “I’m glad you dropped by because I wanted to ask you…” and we went into problem solving or strategizing mode.

When I finished with the top floor, I took the stairs one floor down and repeated, then hit the other floors until I was home again.  I used the same technique when I needed to go to the other buildings for a meeting. And I did my “walking around’ by phone with the regional support managers who based in the field.

These drop-by’s were a great way for me to get feedback about my team and make myself accessible to the partners who were our clients. And it strengthened the network.

Connect Your Connections

Someone called me once and asked for my help problem-solving something that they were working on (“I know this isn’t your area but…”). My answer was, “That’s easy.  Ask so-and-so.  She called me yesterday with an almost identical problem.  I’m not sure how she solved it, but after we talked, she figured it out.” He said he didn’t know that person.  My reply: “Stand up, take two steps backwards out of your cubicle, look to your right. See the pink sweater hanging on the cubicle wall? That’s so-and-so. Tell her I said hi.”

When he called me back later, he had spoken to so-and-so and solved his problem. But he wanted to know how I had known she had a pink sweater outside her cubicle wall when I was in a separate building a half mile away. That was my secret (NBWA) but I was glad that I had helped them make a connection.

It never ceased to amaze me that people didn’t know people two cubicles away, much less in other departments or buildings. I used the same technique when speaking to district managers, “Have you asked the DM in X area?” I’d ask. “They called me about this last week – if you put your heads together, maybe you’ll find a solution.  If you do, let me know so I can share it out.”

Talk it Out in Person

Never overlook the importance of a personal conversation. A young customer service manager – an external hire – was complaining that public relations was overriding her decisions. I asked if she had gone up and talked to them. No, because our director hadn’t introduced her to the PR managers. I told her that she shouldn’t expect him to, that we were a very informal organization that way, and she would create a positive impression by taking the initiative to introduce herself and asking if they could discuss how they could work more effectively together. She seemed puzzled, as if that wasn’t part of her job.

I also met people – especially younger people – who wanted to do all their work by email.  I asked one Gen-Y team member where she was on her assignment. She replied that she and her partner in the other department had been trading email all morning but didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. I asked what he had said when she called him. Apparently “calling him” wasn’t in her vocabulary so I suggested she drop by but she said she didn’t know where his cubicle was. Luckily (or unluckily, for her), I knew where he sat and took her there and introduced them. Ten minutes later she was back in my office. Had she worked out the problem? Yes, and they had decided not to do it my way, they had come up with an even better solution. Home run!

External Networking Techniques Work, Too

Even if you don’t see the value of external networking (or don’t have the time, or are shy, or can’t be bothered), all the things that apply when you network externally apply internally, too. Someone gets recognized or promoted? Congratulations. See an article that applies to their area of the business?  Pass it along.  Need to build up a relationship?  Grab a cup of coffee or lunch.

Don’t wait until you need the connection to strengthen it.

Your success as a leader depends on your ability to influence others.  Your ability to influence depends on the size and strength of your network.  Building effective relationships with your colleagues through internal networking is essential to your internal success.

What are some ways that you build relationships within your organization?

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