Not all network connections are equal. Just as with your friends and work colleagues, there are some – a few – who are closer to you, while others – the majority – are less so. We prioritize our relationships – we have to – so that we can invest in those that offer us the most in return. And the same is true when networking.
To make prioritizing network relationships easier, you can try creating networking circles, to which you assign your connections according to their value to you and your network. Networking circles are an easy-to-visualize way of organizing your network in order to assign the appropriate amount of time and focus to each member thereof.
The fact is that your relationships with some of your network connections will end up being closer and more mutually beneficial than with others. Some of your connections will become close friends who will share many of the high and low points in your life, while others – a great majority of your network, most probably – will remain acquaintances that you will never meet face-to-face, or if you do, you will meet them only occasionally.
The structure of your network should reflect these differences so that you can capitalize on your closer relationships by investing more time and effort into them than in the relationships with less potential.
I first came across the concept of networking circles in the book “How To Be A Power Connector – The 5+50+100 Rule For Turning Your Business Network Into Profits” by Judy Robinett. It was an interesting idea that motivated me to explore more.
Before we deal with the circles themselves, it is important to know how to ascertain which of your connections should be assigned to each circle. In this regard, let’s take a quick look at the four distinct phases of a networking relationship.
Business relationships, like social ones, develop over time, passing through several broadly identifiable phases as they develop. It is important to understand that, just as with social relationships, not all connections will develop equally. Some will stay fairly distant while others will become more intimate, blurring the line between connection and friend.
A prospect is a person who you have set your sights on as a prospective member of your network. You may or may not have met or introduced yourself to them, but they display important traits and qualities that you are looking for.
They most probably don’t know you yet. These are the people you will start to research to find out more about them to verify that they will be a good “fit” for you and your network. You may also start to follow them on social media, especially if they are accomplished or you like what they have to say.
Once you reach out to introduce yourself to the prospect, and the latter replies (perhaps confirming your invitation to connect on LinkedIn or Tribemine), they become a contact. You are able to contact them at will but only to provide value of some sort – including genuine praise of their initiatives or achievement (which is important in the initial phases of relationship-building). The online network of most people (especially on Linkedin) is made up of contacts.
In truth, unless there is something in it for them, you would not be able to ask your contacts for anything substantial. Few would step up to help if you out if you asked them, even if it required only a few minutes of their time, for example, if you asked them to take a survey or give feedback on a product or website.
This relationship phase is almost exclusively transactional in nature; I will do something for you if you do something for me.
That being said, some contacts would – especially those who are also looking to build connections, and these would be good candidates for advancement to connection status.
How do you know if someone in your network is a contact?
• You may have something in common.
• You have to reach out to them. They never initiate contact with you.
• If you ask for help or advice from your network, they seldom respond.
• They have been in your network for less than a year.
• You reach out to them every few months. They seldom respond.
Contacts have little value to your network if they cannot be nurtured into connections. Contacts who have been in your network for over a year should be removed as part of the pruning process. Keep their contact details in case you need them for whatever service or products they provide, but they shouldn’t be in your network. Find new contacts and begin to nurture them instead. As you may surmise, a good network has a lot of churn at the bottom – with a steady flow of contacts in and out – but virtually no movement at the top.
Once you have nurtured the relationship with your contacts for several months, some will become connections if they exhibit any or all of the following traits.
• You have something in common.
• They will send thanks for your praise on social media sites and will answer messages sent to them.
• They may initiate contact with you if they want your help or want to offer something to you. Otherwise, they won’t hear from them unless they have targeted you for their network.
• You are in contact once every two or three months and they will respond but won’t go to any great lengths to strike up a conversation.
Connections are like acquaintances in your social sphere, people you know and like but are not very close to. Most importantly, they know and like you and you will both be happy enough to do little favors for one another now and then, as long as they cost very little in time and/or money. They will take action to help and support you but usually only if they think that there might be something in it for them, either immediately or in the future.
This relationship phase is still transactional at its core. In other words, there must be a semblance of balance as to how much each of the parties contributes to the relationship. If one side perceives that they seem to be repeatedly contributing to the relationship a lot more than the other side, the imbalance may destabilize the relationship and cause it to devolve into a contact once more.
That said, there is a distinct relational undertone to interactions, which are more common and familiar than before.
It is at this stage that trust between the parties begins to grow.
Most of your network will remain acquaintances and will not grow beyond this level.
Your network’s outer circle (see Circles, below) should be populated by connections.
The “Breakthrough” Moment
There exists a barrier between the connection and ally phases of a relationship that is based on familiarity and acknowledgment. When you reach a point at which you know and like or respect the connection and they feel the same way about you, you have reached the breakthrough moment. Pursuant to this, your relationship becomes rooted in the fertile soil of affinity where it can thrive. The goal here is to move your connections with the greatest potential through a breakthrough moment and into the ally phase.
What is a breakthrough moment? A breakthrough moment is different in each relationship. It may be an action or your part or on the part of your connection that makes the other party realize that the person initiating the action has the other’s best interests at heart. It may be that you “hit it off” and enjoy conversing from time-to-time. It could be when you do a favor for your connection and they feel indebted to you and so they focus on returning the gesture. Whatever it is, if it spurs both you and your connection to contact one another – even sporadically – you have reached the breakthrough moment.
A small portion of your connections will become allies over time. Allies are willing to help one more extensively than connections, promoting one another to those they know and even introducing their allies to one another.
You will be able to recognize that your connection has developed into an ally – and your relationship has transcended its breakthrough moment – if they exhibit some or all of the following traits.
• They reach out to you without wanting anything from you. In other words, they are willing to make social calls on you.
• They introduce you to one or more of their other connections.
• They will promote you to those they know if you are a service provider.
• They like and share your social media posts and sometimes comment on the content (articles, videos) you post.
• You have met in person or “facetimed” online.
• You contact them monthly and they always respond and are keen to converse with you.
Allies start to appreciate that their network as a thing of value. They see benefits accrue from their relationships and the camaraderie they get from their business friends becomes an important support mechanism.
As they build these relationships, allies start to get more and more referrals and introductions that translate into increased income and enhanced success.
Allies know and trust one another well enough to have no reservations about referring one another to others they know in business as they are confident in the ability of their allies to do what they say they will, making them look good.
Allies still operate on a transactional basis for the most part; they don’t mind giving help and support as long as there is some sort of quid pro quo – even if it isn’t immediate.
Finally, a small number of allies will become friends – up to five or ten, if you are lucky.
To recognize what a friend is, the relationship with them would display the following characteristics.
• You share more than one interest.
• You will meet with them or speak to them on the phone or online regularly.
• You have introduced them to all of your other friends and allies and they have done the same for you.
• They will go out of their way to promote you.
• You have worked together on projects.
• They make it obvious that they trust and like you.
• You are in contact once or twice a week.
These are your most trusted mentors and confidantes who actively strive to find opportunities for you. They are your foremost advocates and will go out of their way to see you succeed – as you will for them. You will also know a lot about their families and personal life. The line between business and social life is completely blurred here.
The Networking Circles
Back to circles.
Ascertaining exactly when a person in your network transitions from one phase to the next can be difficult, and it becomes evident only through the change in their demeanor and approach to dealing with you.
To make managing your relationships easier, you can divide your network into “circles”, a series of conceptual groups that correspond with the relationship phases dealt with above. Through this sorting of your network according to each connection’s “value” to your network, you can more easily manage your connections by applying similar “rules of engagement” to all in a particular circle.
There are three concentric circles in this model: a core, an inner and outer circle. Let’s look at each on in turn, moving from the connections closest to you to those who are less so.
Who: The core circle is made up of your closest connections, those who you feel align most strongly with your values and direction and, most importantly, show that they value their relationship with you by regularly taking the initiative to get in touch with you. You could classify your core connection relationships as business friendships, which, if nurtured, will form a strong and enduring bulwark against adversity. You should be very selective about who you invite into your core circle and only do so after your relationship with your prospect is at least two or three years old.
How: You should be ready to give any help you can to your core connections, even if substantial effort or monetary cost is involved. Their needs must take priority over those of all other connections. Be aware that core connections develop organically. You cannot force them. But, when they do reveal themselves, you need to be able to recognize and develop them.
Also, it is crucial that you introduce the members of your core circle to one another and encourage them to meet and engage with one another. The strength of this core part of your network will go a long way towards determining how strong your entire network is.
When: Depending on how close these connections are, you should be in contact with them once every one or two weeks to keep abreast of developments in their businesses and lives. You should speak to them by phone or in person if possible as face-to-face contact is optimal for building relationships.
How Many: You need only have five or ten core connections at most, even with a full complement of 150 connections. As with everything else networking-related, it’s not a numbers game. Core connections will reveal themselves and even if you have just one, count yourself lucky. These relationships demand time and effort to maintain, so having too many can stretch your resources.
Who: Your inner circle is made up of connections who reach out to you from time to time and obviously value your relationship, but they are not as close to you as your core connections are. Your inner core is your primary resource pool and should include a wide range of skills, knowledge, and experience.
You would move a connection from the outer to the inner circle of your network after at least a year of them being a member of your network. It’s important to make sure that they are professional, reliable and honest before including them in your inner circle.
Your core circle connections will be drawn from your inner circle after several years.
How: Inner circle connections are important to your network and you should establish a routine to contact them regularly. If they are having a problem or need advice, you should be willing to spend some time and effort to help them. As stated, this is your primary (reliable) resource pool, so you should get into the habit of referring connections (or those outside your network) to these inner connections whenever possible.
You should try to communicate with them by phone or VOIP (using software like Skype or Zoom) every once in a while. If they are in your areas, you might also consider meeting them for coffee.
When: Try to catch up with these connections once every month to six weeks.
How Many: You should aim for an inner circle of between 30 and 50 connections (about 30% of the total number).
Who: Your outer circle connections are those who are new to your network or those that rarely, if ever, take the initiative to reach out to you. Outer circle connections are, in effect, on probation. You are testing them to see if they will provide value for your network. Those that show themselves to have what it takes to be a part of your network can be moved to the inner circle. Those who are “dead wood” can be discarded.
How: Although they are less important to your network than core and inner connections, do not undervalue them. It is important to establish a routine to reach out to them with some regularity and to make sure that you offer value to them.
You will not know their situations as intimately as you will the members of the other two circles, but if you do discover that they are struggling with something, do what you can to help. You should also consider referring them to your inner and/or core circle members if they have similar interests or there is potential for collaboration.
When: Outer circle connections need only be contacted every two or three months.
How Many: You should have between 50 to 80 people in your outer circle (about 70% of the total number).
The idea of arranging your network into concentric circles is that as you get to know and build up your relationships with your connections, you move them first into your outer circle, then into the inner circle, and finally into your core circle if they meet the requirements.”
Prioritizing your connections by assigning them to one of three circles allows you to invest time and energy into higher value relationships that have a greater chance of seeing returns while spending less time and effort on ones with less potential. The result is a highly optimized network that delivers results to you and your closer connections. At the end of the day, networking is an investment and the only way you are going to see a return is through the use of cirlces.