Q: I recently visited a networking group, but I'm hesitant to join because it is mostly made up of small-business owners and salespeople. I think it would be better to join a networking group of business-to-business professionals who I can relate to and who are looking for the same type of contacts that I need. What is your opinion?
A: When it comes to business networking, you never know who people know. One of the important keys to being successful at building a powerful personal network is that of diversity.
I've run a large business networking organization for the past two decades. I often speak to people who tell me they want to network exclusively with other business professionals who work with clients in a similar socioeconomic target market-in other words, they want to network with business professionals with similar clients. Although it is good to include these people in your personal network, any attempt to network with them exclusively would be a tremendous mistake.
It is human nature to congregate with people who are very much like us. People tend to cluster together based on education, age, race, professional status and more. The bottom line is that we tend to hang out with people who have experiences or perspectives similar to ours. Often, most of our friends and associates are friends and associates with each other as well. The problem with this is that when we surround ourselves with people who have similar contacts, it may be difficult to make connections with new people or the companies we desire to do business with.
A diverse personal network enables you to increase the possibility of including connectors, or linchpins, in your network. Linchpins are people who in some way cross over between two or more clusters or groups of individuals. In effect, they have overlapping interests or contacts that allow them to link groups of people together easily.
When it comes to networking, diversity is key because it allows us to locate these connectors between clusters of people. According to Wayne Baker, author of the book Achieving Success Through Social Capital , "Linchpins... are the gateways. They create shortcuts across clumps" or groups of people.
The best way to increase the number of linchpins in your network is to develop a diverse network, not a homogeneous one.
Having developed more than 3,000 networking groups in 16 countries around the world, I can categorically state that the strongest networking groups I've seen are generally ones that are diverse in many, many ways. The more diverse the network, the more likely it will include overlapping connectors or linchpins that link people together in ways they never would have imagined.
One of the problems in understanding this concept is a somewhat built-in bias that many people have about networking with individuals that are outside their normal frame of reference. Let me give you an example. A good friend of mine in Boston, Patti Salvucci, recently told me an amazing story.
Salvucci runs dozens of networking groups for BNI (Business Network International) in the Boston area. She told me about one of the groups she was visiting recently that met in a private meeting room at Fenway Park. She said that she arrived a little early to the meeting and noticed an older gentleman setting up coffee mugs in preparation for the meeting. Well, Salvucci is a master networker, and so she struck up a conversation with the man while waiting for members to arrive. In talking to him, she was really taken by the amazing tenor of his voice. She mentioned to him that he had an incredible voice and asked what he did before this. The gentleman informed her that he used to be a commentator for CNN. He went on to tell her that in his later years, he wanted to work in a less-hectic job as well as live closer to his daughter. He decided to take on the job of managing the owner's suite at Fenway Park in Boston because it gave him an opportunity to be close to his family while having a less-hectic career later in life.
Salvucci asked him about some of the people he met during his time in broadcasting. He shared many great stories with her, including an interview that he had done with JKF the week before he was assassinated. He also talked about meeting Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. It was an interesting conversation that she genuinely enjoyed.
Later, when the meeting was in full swing, one of the regular members, Don, publicly mentioned that he would really like to do a radio talk show someday and was looking for some contacts that could help him pursue this dream.
"Do you see that guy over there?" Salvucci asked, pointing to the ex-CNN commentator. "Have you seen him before?"
"Yeah," said Don. "He's the guy who sets up the coffee for our meeting."
"Did you know that he used to be a broadcaster for CNN?" Salvucci asked.
Don said, "Wow, I had no idea."
Salvucci suggested that Don introduce himself and learn a little more about the man he'd seen every week for several months. After all, he just might be able to make a connection for Don in the broadcasting industry.
The irony in this story is that he had seen the man on many occasions but had not struck up a conversation with him because he felt they had little, if anything, in common. The truth is, when it comes to networking, not having a lot in common with someone means that person could be a connector for you to a whole world of people that you might not otherwise be able to meet.
Some of the strongest networking groups I've seen over the past two decades are ones that are diverse in many ways. They have a good mix of members based not only on race and gender, but also on profession, age, education and experience. The more diverse your network, the more likely you are to make overlapping linkages between clusters of people. The more linkages you can make between clusters of people, the stronger your network can be.
If you wish to build a powerful personal network, branch out. Build a diverse network of professional contacts that includes people that don't look like you, sound like you, speak like you or have your background, education or history. The only thing they should have in common with you and the other people in your network is that they should be really good at what they do. Create a personal network like that, and you'll have a network that can help you succeed at anything.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.