The power of networks

A CEO I was working with last week paused for a moment and said, with slight bewilderment, ‘You seem to know everyone … how?’. My immediate answer was ‘well, I do a lot of things, in a wide range of spheres, across the world – you come to know a lot of people when you do this’; on reflection after the conversation, however, I thought my real answer to his question was actually deeper than this, and worth unpicking further.

I do know a lot of people – this is very true. Moreover, I like at least 99.9% of the people I know, and this strikes me as significant. I always remember as a fledgling teacher being told ‘you won’t like most of your pupils, but you don’t have to, to be a good teacher’, but actually I did like them. There is not a single student I can think of now who I didn’t like, and many of them have reconnected with me since I have moved on from education into my non-executive career. I have met up again with former students while working in Hong Kong, Sydney and London, and enjoyed every minute of these precious moments of connection. Similarly, I like all the people I work with professionally on boards or in other organisations. In a typical week, I have meaningful discussions and interactions with scores of people, and I genuinely like these people. Of course, there are people I really, really like, with whom I choose to spend more time and/or share more personally with – people I am delighted to call wonderful friends – but I have a very broad understanding of the practice of ‘liking people’. When I meet new people, which again I do almost every week, I like them. My list of ‘people I like’ grows by the day.

‘Liking people’ doesn’t actually happen by accident, I reflect. ‘Liking people’ begins, I would venture to suggest, with the underlying premise that people are essentially likeable, and a profound belief in the capacity for good in human beings, aligned – so I realised later in my life – with the philosopher John Dewey’s belief in ultimate, ethical humanity. I choose Dewey as a marker here because he is an educational hero of mine – again, through a retrospective fitting of my understanding of the purpose of education to the explorations of great thinkers who have gone before; in fact, there are a number of wellsprings of inspirations who I could name here; my alignments are eclectically constructed. What they share in common is a pragmatic optimism – which is a discipline rather than a born state. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ needs time and energy if you are to love both parties in the neighbourly partnership. Like all disciplines, however, it becomes easier the more it is practised.

I have read screeds about networking over the years, and much of it contains very sensible advice which boils down to ‘know who you are’ and ‘be proactive’. Do make time, if you want to grow the number of people you know, either to join networking groups or simply team up with people in your field and beyond; when you find your tribe or tribes, it adds a rich, enjoyable and productive dimension to your life. I would add to this advice: ‘give generously of your expertise’, and ‘be fearless in reaching out’; the give and take of relationships demands that at least one person in the partnership starts the communication. So yes, be proactive and extend your network when you are in search of a new job, or a mentor, or some inspirations … but remember to give as well as take. In fact, give before you take. And when you do take, give back manifold.

Above all, before you do any of this at all, look honestly at how you view your fellow human beings. And – dare I say it – start by thinking the best of them, and believing in them.

Like someone new today. What a lovely way to start the week …

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