The Power of Weak Connections

By Patty Azzarello

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The most effective leaders have strong personal and professional networks that they can go to for information, support, real work, and air-cover. Every executive needs to build and maintain their network. It’s crucial for both credibility and effectiveness.


Over the past two years, I have been gathering data about how practiced people are at personal networking and I’ve spent most of my career thinking that I was the only one who was not good at this and, therefore, at a great disadvantage to my peers. But I’ve learned that only about 15% of successful executives consider themselves to be natural networkers, and less than 10% believe they do a good job at it.


So good news for all of us who are not naturally good at it: we are not alone. Or more accurately, we are alone among many other people who are also alone! Over the years, I have become competent at the task, not because it is easy, fun or natural for me, but because I have understood the task better and devised systems and crutches to make it easier.


One of the biggest reasons people give for not networking is a fear that either the task itself, or the need to maintain the resulting relationships, will take too much time. Happily, it doesn’t work that way. One of the key elements of effective networking is what I call the Power of Weak Connections.


The Science behind this concept comes from Mark Granovetter, an American sociologist who has created some of the most influential theories in modern sociology since the 1970s. He is best known for his work in social network theory and in economic sociology, particularly his theory on the spread of information in a community known as “The Strength of Weak Ties” (1973).


The Strength of Weakness


What is a weak connection? We all have key relationships where the whole point is to spend time with the person because we enjoy and value that. These are strong connections. These take real time, and spending the time is the good part. Weak connections on the other hand are with people you know, and at one time had an authentic reason to connect with—they are still personal connections, but they don’t require a lot of time to maintain.


They are not just a stack of business cards of people you don’t really know at all. I don’t believe this type of “contact” adds value to your network. Weak connections are based on something real. (Think purpose over time.) You can maintain a weak connection about once a year with a brief phone call or email, a “ping”. Something like, “I thought of you the other day, and wanted to say hello. Things are going well for me and my family. Still at my same company, but I started a new job as the CIO for the enterprise business unit, which I am enjoying. Hope you are well.” 


Use your own style of course, but the point is to realize that it doesn’t take a lot of “data”. Weak connections are about keeping the connection fresh, not keeping all of the details of the relationship current—I am here, you are there. I thought enough about you to acknowledge our connection.


This is so much more powerful (and pleasant) than no contact at all for years and years. Find some method or process or trigger to keep yourself doing this. Think about spending maybe a half an hour a month, and pinging 10-30 people. That is a lot of network refreshing without a big time commitment.

Network Without Need


Keeping connections fresh is more about giving than taking. You are giving someone attention and you are not asking for anything. It is a pleasant contact for them. If you don’t do this, it is very uncomfortable when you need to reach out to people that you have not communicated with at all in five years and suddenly ask them for something. 


But if you have kept the connection fresh it will be much more natural and comfortable when you need to reach out—and they will be much more inclined to actually help!


A large network of “weak connections” is more valuable than a small network of close connections. And it is not just a matter of the numbers. The people you are close to are not always very useful to help you because they tend to be in the same environments, know the same people, and think similarly to you. Whereas your “weak connections” have access to different stuff, people, places and things. 


If you are on a job search (a big reason people reach out to their network) or looking for new insights, your network of weak connections will have more new ideas, broader reach, and bigger impact. As an IT executive, it is easy to insulate yourself with technology. But senior IT roles are quite hazardous if you don’t have a broad network of support. That broad network is what can protect you from the sniper fire, as well as help you accelerate progress and ensure success on a high visibility project.


It is worth some focused time and attention to create a habit of building and maintaining your personal network.


Patty Azzarello became the youngest general manager ever at HP at the age of 33. She ran HP’s $1B OpenView software business at the age of 35, and was the CEO of an IT software company, Euclid Software at the age of 38. She has been working with IT executives to build their careers and put their IT strategies into action for many years. Today Patty Azzarello is the CEO of Azzarello Group, www.AzzarelloGroup.com.