The most challenging leadership skill, even for C-level

The most challenging leadership skill, even for C-level

05 August 2021
Veerle Seymus
Veerle Seymus
  • An essential activity of every ambitious manager or leader is networking. Most leaders suck at strategic networking.

    Research proves that successful leaders spend 70% móre time networking than their counterparts. Able to utilize extensive social networks makes leaders better informed, more creative, more productive, better problem-solvers, quick decision-makers and they get more support for their ideas and projects.

    First, let's look at the definition of networking: "Creating a fabric of personal contacts to provide support, feedback, insight, and resources."

  • Three forms of networks

  • Herminia Ibarra and Mark Lee Hunter identified three distinct forms of networks in their article How Leaders Create and Use Networks:

    ⬇️ Operational network: strong relationships with colleagues and key outsiders that help manage current internal responsibilities

    ⬇️ Personal network: the circle of kindred spirits you turn to for advice about personal development

    ⬇️ Strategic network: internal and external contacts that help tap into and capitalize on new opportunities for yourself and the organization.

    The primary operational level consists of a network of direct reports, peers, suppliers and customers, distributors and other stakeholders. The purpose is straightforward: getting work done efficiently with people who have to know and trust one another to accomplish their immediate tasks. Relationships are directed by the organizational structure and constrained by current demands managed higher up in the food chain.

    The secondary personal network is found in professional associations, alumni groups, clubs, conferences and personal interest communities. The purpose is to boost personal and professional development. Contacts provide necessary referrals, information, coaching, and mentoring. This safe space for personal growth can be the foundation for strategic networking when leaders learn how to bring those connections to support organizational strategy.

    The ability to move to the strategic network - the highest level of networking maturity - is the crucial test of leadership. Effective leaders learn to use networks for strategic objectives. "This network plugs the aspiring leader into a set of relationships and information sources that collectively embody the power to achieve personal and organizational goals."

  • Moving from manager to a leadership role requires external reorientation ánd towards the future.

  • The benefits of building a strategic network that crosses all organizational and functional boundaries are plenty:

    • looking outside your organization cultivates a more profound comprehension of yourself and the environments in which you move
    • building external relationships helps you meet nonroutine or unexpected hurdles
    • gaining new perspectives allows advancement in your career
  • Train that skill

  • Many leaders perceive developing and nurturing relationships as a natural skill and an add-on, taking them away from their primary responsibilities. Growing a leadership network is a skill that can be trained and practiced as an integral part of a leader's responsibilities.

    What is needed to network strategically?

    • get comfortable with the power players at the levels above you
    • move beyond your functional expertise
    • figure out where to go and enlist the people and groups necessary to get there
    • find common ground with outside-inside connections, contribute and multiply your knowledge
    • allocate time and energy, usually devoted to meeting your many operational demands ('the operations trap')
    • let strategic needs, not interpersonal chemistry, determine which relationships need cultivating
    • know your value: work on your personal brand and get your elevator pitch right
  • Our tips for mastering the skill of strategic networking

  • Forming a trusted set of advisors and advocates demands a lot of time and effort. Consider using these shortcuts:

    • find a good role model: learn by observing and getting feedback from those who network effectively and ethically
    • become a mentor: building relationships with many individuals in a range of positions at a variety of organizations creates a robust external network
  • Leaders must find new ways of defining themselves and develop new relationships to anchor and feed their emerging personas. They must also accept that networking is one of the most important requirements of their new leadership roles and continue to allocate enough time and effort to see it pay off.

    Ibarra and Hunter

Struggles of a manager

Managers are

  • not or inadequately trained in this role


    • lack self-confidence
    • don’t know how to go from being a colleague to being a boss
    • need to loosen up on the command & control leadership style
    • must let go of the (technical) expert status
    • cannot give or accept constructive feedback
    • feel pressure to perform as manager
    • have difficulty building relationships
    • want to be liked by everyone or want to be the ‘bad boss’
    • play the hero
  • are struggling


    • stay too involved in operations
    • have trouble prioritizing
    • cannot delegate
    • fear conflict situations
    • disconnect from the team
    • deal with flawed strategic thinking
    • do not relate to higher management
    • lack clear communication skills
    • remain not self-aware
    • avoid difficult conversations
    • miss political antennas
    • ...
  • capable of more


    • need mental preparation as successor
    • need to be able to lead big changes ahead
    • need to learn to be emotionally resilient and in control
    • need to learn to make big decisions fast without all the information
    • must become persuasive presenters
    • need to learn how to cultivate their own personal brand
    • need to learn how to lead by example
    • manage by trust, not by fear
    • need to overly develop empathy
    • ...
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