Sizing up the newly appointed talent leader sitting across from me, there was much to admire.
A series of rapid promotions and accomplishments signaled high performer. The breadth of work and depth of sponsorship indicated high potential. Yet in stepping up to the senior role, something was clearly missing. We needed to craft an expansion plan.
“As you move up, how would you characterize your external network and reaching-out habits?” I asked.
“Not much,” the leader replied. “They keep me quite busy here at the company, and I’ve learned a lot from my managers.”
The response reminded me of my earlier days moving up the ranks. An aggressive learning curve, hard work and good internal relationship building were vital for advancement, but the ascent from middle management required something different.
As a mentor once taught me, long hours and personal smarts are a good start, but more is required to keep moving up. You’ll need to leverage ideas and experiences beyond the walls of the organization. To be sure, you still need to be engaged and effective on the inside. But as you move higher, external networking plays a special role in success.
Early on, it’s what you know. Later in your career, it’s what your network knows.
So the conversation turned to what I’ve learned over the years about garnering the “smarts” of the outside world. As we talked, five networking questions emerged. These points are equally beneficial as a startup plot for newly appointed senior leaders while also serving as a network health check-up for the seasoned professional.
How’s your tribe?: Through the use of councils and advisory boards, lasting professional friendships have formed. They’ve become my “tribe” of fellow practitioners, who share a passion for talent building and have great wisdom and experience. Plus, they’re fun to be around. When the internal job pressures mount, the tribe re-energizes me.
Where’s your gathering?: The latest Web-enabled technology is still no substitute for leaving the office and attending a conference. There’s something about a different setting outside the office environment that sparks fresh perspective and creativity. Sometimes the inspiration is a great conference speaker who challenges my thinking or a fellow talent leader who shares an innovative yet practical approach to solving a problem.
Sometimes it’s just getting away that frees my mind to rethink the business back home in a more productive way.
Who’s your guru?: There’s a little-known fact in the speaking and publishing world: few listeners and readers reach out. Likewise, few corporate clients shape relationships with talented consultants beyond the contracted transaction.
I’ve taken an interest in many of the speakers, writers and consultants out there. I regularly pass along my appreciation and feedback for their work. I pick their brains on a work challenge or use them as a sounding board for my latest talent formation scheme.
Who’s your investigator?: Late one Friday, I received a call from my CEO asking about existing research on the organizational benefits of community service. On my own, I would’ve struggled to come up with a cogent response. But within a few hours, my favorite talent practice researchers produced the definitive answer. I’ve learned to make friends with some of the best researchers out there, including Bersin, i4cp and The Conference Board.
Who’s new?: As time goes on, an external circle of professional contacts might turn stale and narrow. Nevertheless, we work in a dynamic field with breakthrough ideas, orthodoxy-challenging research and pioneering leaders bringing new solutions to old problems. I’ve learned to renew my expansion plan each year by trying a different council, attending a fresh conference and reaching out to emerging thought leaders.
As we finished the meeting, a final question emerged: Who have you helped lately? Professional relationships are maintained by reciprocity, but the best ones are fueled by mutual caring. I appreciate those in my expanded world who have taught and inspired me.
And now my caring tribe just grew with that one new promising talent leader.
Kevin D. Wilde is the vice president and chief learning officer at General Mills and author of “Dancing with the Talent Stars.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.