Let's say you want to build a great kitchen garden. Imagine you go around town and acquire all your favorite plants. You come home tired, but satisfied. The next day, you acquire more plants and the cycle keeps repeating itself. How many of your prized acquisitions would be healthy by the end of the year, if once acquired they didn't get adequate nourishment?
Just like plants, we need to nurture our networks. The higher the number of connections we have, the less time we have to tend to those relationships. Thus, we need to determine the optimum number of connections we can comfortably handle.
We have a limited capacity for relationships. While the numbers may vary a bit, research from University College, London tells us that our cognitive capacity is limited to handle no more than 150 to 250 relationships. To manage more connections than that, we need to hire help or even build an organization staffed with adequate people. To continue our gardening metaphor, we need to move from kitchen garden to a commercial farm equipped with the right tools.
Don't acquire more connections than you can cultivate. Research out of University of Edinburgh shows that this superficial "friending" with everyone we went to high school with to the person we bumped into on the street becomes unmanageable and stressful.
In a work environment where people can get away with opportunistic behavior without serious legal or reputational consequences, research shows that having large networks is actually calling for disaster. In such environments, you need to work with people you know and trust very well. Incidentally, this is why businesspeople in emerging markets often operate in close hard-to-break-into groups. These cliques enforce rules among members that weak legal institutions in their countries cannot. That said, if you can trust your connections to make good on your agreements, you have a bit more room for larger networks.
Here is what you can do to grow your professional network effectively:
Sow your seeds strategically. Don't spread yourself too thin or spend all your time with a few close buddies. The relationships that work best in the entrepreneurial context are ones that are close, but not too close, according to a recent study in the Journal of Business Venturing.
Just as you need to design your garden well with an adequate number and variety of plants, you need a network with diverse groups of friends. Diverse networks not only provide access to people and resources, but also new opportunities and markets.
Encourage cross-pollination. Your network is actually composed of several networks from work to school to sports to your neighborhood. You are probably at the core of some networks and at the fringes of others. You are at the core if you are the main person who others in your network interact through. While this has its advantages, the ability to bring people together across various networks is a more important skill for entrepreneurs. The more you can act as a bridge for your connections across various networks, the better your chances of enlisting their help. You'll be able to recognize problems or opportunities in one network to help people in other networks.
Think variety, not quantity. We like to network with those who have something unique to offer -- knowledge, skills or entertainment. The first step in building your network is to identify your unique skills and find people who are different, but complementary. You do not want your contacts to be so similar that all the information and resources you get are redundant or so different that you have nothing in common.
It's also important to pay attention to other people's needs and know how to manage the impression you leave on others. Focus on managing key relationships yourself and let word-of-mouth from those connections keep you in good standing with a broader network. If you try to cultivate too many connections directly, you will be hard pressed to manage even a few relationships.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.