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Networking outside your sector is a vital way to source honest, creative and valuable perspectives on your business. In a time of fast-paced change and financial pressures, it’s a means to break silos and draw the inspiration and innovation needed to breathe new life into your thinking.
Mark Wilson, Managing Director of BoTian and Chairman of BoCheng, two of AB Sugar’s businesses in North China, says: “Networking is about opening your mind; it’s about understanding what others are thinking then allowing it to enrich your own ideas... when speaking with people outside my industry and sector, it tends to produce original concepts and hybrid solutions.”
Steve Cooper, Managing Director of Business and Personal Banking Solutions at Barclays, agrees: “If you are at the top of an organisation you generally only get told what people think you want to hear, so [it is difficult] to know what’s going on... and get enough different views and perspectives to triangulate your feelings with what people are experiencing. When you reach the top, networks become more important than ever.”
To coin a phrase, it’s about ‘thinking outside the box’. Gayle Hares, CFO, General Business at IBM, explains: “Each organisation has its own culture and may, from time to time, tackle issues in a specific or similar fashion. Discussing shared experiences can open up a fresh perspective and allow you to discover a new way to tackle a problem.”
Ursula Morgenstern, CEO of IT services provider Atos, says: “The main benefits of cross-sector networking, especially if you are a service-based business, are understanding your clients’ industries and what is important to them, then using that to give you ideas for new partnerships or supplier relationships you could offer to your customers.
"Another benefit is learning from each other... [and] how things are done in different industries generally challenges your approach to management, while some industries as a whole can teach expertise in certain disciplines, like contract management, design, or supply chains.”
Kath Knight, Group Human Resources Director at property and construction services provider Mace, adds: “It is important to not restrict yourself to your immediate environment – we think that we are one of the top-performing companies operating in the construction sector, so to benchmark ourselves with organisations that have equal aspirations, [we need to look] both outside our industry and globally.”
A Two-Way Street
Those who really ‘get’ the value of networking appreciate and enjoy the chance to give something back. Geraint Anderson, CEO of global electronics provider TT electronics, says: “One thing that took a while to sink in [for me] is the importance of reciprocation... It is incredibly important to remember that what goes around comes around... [and] my experience of networking is that you never know where these conversations are going to lead.”
Don Hunton, former Head of Europe for Paramount Pictures and MD of Don Hunton Consulting, notes: “One of the early things that was said to me, and has been repeated since, is that over 80 per cent of new roles never get advertised or go through search companies. 
“I will never get over meeting a senior headhunter who said: ‘I’m the biggest player here, and I only see four per cent of the market, so you’ll need to go elsewhere for the other 96 per cent.’ Whether you are self-employed or going up a corporate ladder, your connections are the most likely route for you to pick up new roles.”
For those who are seeking new opportunities, the connections they have built up over a career really comes into their own. Chris Merry, CEO of RSM Tenon, says: “You never quite know where the next job is going to come from and therefore the volume of networking [necessary to land that role] has to be worth it, because you only need one contact to produce something fruitful.”
It’s not just about your next role, of course, and if you only attempt to network when you fancy a move you will get a short return. Don explains: “You can be surprised how fulfilling it can be to impart your knowledge; it’s a lonely place at the top of the tree.”
Herminia Ibarra, a Criticaleye Thought Leader and Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, says: “Strategic networking opens people's eyes to new business directions, but almost all executives underutilise it.”
It’s a point taken up by Jackie Dubery, Human Resources Director at the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board: “Networking gives you insight as to where there might be tensions and stresses, [and tells you:] ‘I am not the only one going through it.' The network can become a support mechanism, because you have other people who you can talk things through with and they have no baggage or judgement to make.”
In times of dramatic change and volatility, it’s not always easy to step back and survey wider market forces with real clarity. Steve says: “The benefits of networking broadly are huge: you can get a perspective you might not have thought about yourself... [particularly] for identifying future trends that are going across industries.”
Geraint agrees: “The key is... gaining from other people’s experiences in various sectors and industries that relate to your business, even though they can be quite different. A lot of the issues are very similar, and to gain that know-how from others can be very valuable indeed... especially issues around remuneration, compensation, talent management, change management – the sort of things many companies are having to face on a daily basis.”
Developing a thriving cross-sector network need not be hard. Bill Payne, VP, CRM and Industries, Global Process Services, IBM, explains: “It’s too easy in the digital age to forget the ‘network’ we make through face-to-face contact with colleagues, collaborators, competitors and clients alike. [Networking] reminds me that business, commerce, and life works through personal contact, not just the technology-rich world in which we live.”
Leaders mustn’t be afraid to step away from their comfort zones, as even those that seem to offer you the least immediate reward can help unlock new parts of yourself and your business.
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