By Sean Tierney, VP, Activate Networks
What makes for a worthwhile executive coaching engagement? Personality inventories and 360-degree reviews long have been standard fare for coaches, but now there’s a tool that provides detailed information about what may be an executive’s most critical resource: his or her network of relationships.
Many professionals have used this tool—Personal Network Assessment (PNA)—to look beyond the larger organization to their own networks of professional and personal ties.
Your relationships determine what ideas you hear, what you learn, what information and expertise you gain access to, the decisions you make, and the opportunities that come your way.
PNA offers a valuable opportunity for coaches: a way to help clients diagnose, balance, leverage, and extend the ties that can enhance performance.
How High Performers Network
Rob Cross, a professor at the University of Virginia and an expert in PNA, has found that the networks of high performers share important characteristics. Instead of building large networks, high performers tend to foster diverse ties, connecting to people who bridge subgroups, and to people who offer different experiences and perspectives.
If not actively tended, networks can become imbalanced, which can hamper effectiveness. If you have too many ties, you can become so overloaded with requests that you burn out. If you don’t have sufficient ties to a variety of groups, you are unlikely to be hearing multiple voices and perspectives as you make decisions. And, paradoxically, if you focus on making your network as big as possible, you might not have relationships that give you the personal support and encouragement you need.
Let’s look at how PNA helped two executives gain crucial insight into their performance.
The Overloaded Networker
First, consider Mike, an experienced executive who joined a global consulting firm to develop an organizational change practice. To get the new practice off the ground, he needed to market it not only externally but also internally—it would succeed only if other practices included it in their client engagements.
Mike quickly began networking. He met 100 of the senior partners within his first six months, and he focused on building ties with his direct and indirect reports. He worked alongside the people in his practice, even pulling all-nighters to finish important client projects.
Mike was burning the candle at both ends, but his long hours and attention to networking yielded immediate benefits. People across the firm learned quickly about the new practice and began to use it in client work, and those in the practice worked harder because of his energy and commitment.
After a year-and-a-half, Mike took a PNA, which showed some interesting results. Despite the sheer number of contacts he had developed—so many that he usually was overloaded with requests—his network did not look like a high performer’s. The majority of people he turned to regularly for help were at his hierarchical level, which meant he was not getting insights from people lower in the organization. Finally, Mike found that the people he relied on for advice about work-related issues weren’t giving him what he needed on a personal level: a chance to discuss his career trajectory and larger issues of purpose. It was no surprise, then, that he was feeling burned out. He constantly was interacting with people but not necessarily getting needed support.
The Narrow Networker
Now let’s consider Ann, who moved from a VP position at a small bank to become VP in a loan division at a Fortune 50 financial services company. At the bank, she had a robust network of ties—including people in all divisions and all levels. She also fostered external ties, which were crucial for various deals and for developing business opportunities.
As a result of the scale of the Fortune 50 organization and the learning curve Ann faced, she focused her early contact building not just internally, but within her own division. She was successful in the role, gaining the trust of people throughout the division. In fact, she did so well that the corporate office entrusted her with an important project: developing a new process for buying and selling risk. To launch this initiative, Ann needed to pull together legal, accounting, and technological expertise from across the company.
Ann took a PNA, which delivered mixed results. Her network was vertically integrated, with strong connections across all hierarchical levels in her division and some important external contacts. But most of her ties were to people she worked with on a daily basis, which meant that she heard only certain voices and a limited range of perspectives. And the lack of ties outside her division was glaring. She knew none of the people she needed for the new project. Her network had narrowed in ways that would make it difficult for her to succeed in her corporate assignment.
Increase Your Coaching ROI
A coach working with Mike and Ann might suspect that they needed to build new or different sorts of workplace connections. But it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which the executives then would have spent a lot of time networking aimlessly, perhaps replicating and aggravating the imbalances that already plagued them.
The results of a PNA allow a coach to see the makeup of an individual’s network, spot biases and imbalances, and then design highly targeted programs to correct them. For Mike, it probably would make sense to allocate some decision rights and responsibilities to trustworthy people at lower levels of the practice. That would alleviate his burden, increase the vertical reach of his network, and give him more time to cultivate the relationships that could give him badly needed personal support. For Ann, a structured rotation throughout the company could help her develop strong connections in other divisions that would prepare her for future high-level projects.
PNA provides crucial information that can make a coaching engagement more effective. It is a vital addition to the coaching repertoire, helping individual executives—and the company—get the most from the investment in coaching.
Sean Tierney is a VP at Activate Networks, a social network analytics company.