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5 rules to build a highly effective network

Last updated on: June 05, 2014 02:55 IST

5 rules to build a highly effective network

Roopa Unnikrishnan

Invest in building a vibrant network. It will stand you in good stead, says management consultant Roopa Unnikrishnan.

Solopreneur. An inelegant word, addressing an elegant and increasingly pertinent value-creating part of our economy. The dictionary definition is "an entrepreneur who works alone, with contractors, yet is fully responsible for running the business."

That rang true to my almost two years of running Center10.

Globally, a growing number of professionals have taken the path of establishing their own enterprises, often small enterprises that tap into powerful networks and deliver specialised services to those who need that support.

The richest element of my entrepreneurial experience has been the vibrant network of partners who have been part of my journey. They have been my cheering squad, advisors, quasi-employees, and above all, my always dependable partners.

Of course, there have been partnership hiccups along the way, but those have been few and far between. I realised, as I reflected, that the network that has swung into effect have been decades in the making. Over 15 years, they have advised me when I was moving into a leadership role with a global team, when I was making the decision to move organisations, and of course, when I was setting up my new firm, and making decisions around structure, logo, firm name, client strategy, offering everything.

All I am saying is, whether you are contemplating setting off on your own, or growing within a large organisation, invest in building a vibrant network. It will stand you in good stead. Here's how

1. Be relationship-oriented, not transactional

Some of the professional relationships that have continued to be powerful accelerants to Center10 include people who I first met more than fifteen years as I started my career in the US.

People who understand your evolution can be great touchstones when you are weighing options, charting bold moves or trying to build out a new service line.
The benefit of such relationships are that you have worked together through multiple variations of roles and dynamics -- as equals, sometimes a client to them, sometimes vice versa, other times as collaborators.

The outcome is genuine reciprocity and a long view in a relationship. It's not about the latest billable minute, it's about the next brainstorm that can benefit either or both of you equally.

Alan Culler (pictured here, left, with me) shared an office with me 15 years ago when we were part of the scrappy start-up called Katzenbach Partners LLC which went on to be a significant consulting firm -- he spent hours mentoring me during those first crucial year of consulting.

He was also the first one to hire me as a collaborator when I first hung up my shingle, and now, for the past year, he has been part of my consulting teams.

2. Build on shared values

While diversity is key to a powerful network, at the core of each relationship should be shared values. They come into play when you are are trying to get things done together fast, or when you face a tricky situation and a tough call needs to be made.

A couple of weeks ago, a client asked if I could be in Europe the next day for strategic interviews (in a B2B situation).

In principle, I find such high-stakes interviews with senior third party executives are best done with a partner. My team member was out of town, but I quickly packed, and called Brigitte Lippmann who was a couple of hours from the client location.

We had worked together 10 years ago, and she, like I, believes in the need for strategy and organisational issues to be thought of in parallel; she is deeply client-focussed, and will always help a friend.

An hour into our discussion, she had changed her holiday plans, made reservations for us in Europe, spent the three hours I had before the flight getting up to speed on the interviews and was a huge asset in the interviews. Our shared values around life, professionalism and organisational impact, all made that kind of turnkey collaboration possible.

3. Respect the expertise around you

Instead of staffing up, I have leveraged experts who have themselves created excellent practices and tool kits.

Between my financial planner, Stacy, who helped me get to a high level of confidence around my finance, my accountant Padma, lawyer, book keeper Sharon, my web advisor Ajit of Solminds, my editor Susanna ...the list goes on.

In selecting them, I have chosen driven professionals who are in touch with the latest developments, are consultative (not prescriptive), and like an iterative approach to problem-solving.

In essence, people who know that the better solution may be ahead, but let us get things done in the meantime... and keep the discussion going.

Very relationship-based, not transactional.

They tend to know where my business is headed, my hopes and fears -- and I, in turn, know theirs.

4. Joy, or another take on the "airport test"

It helps to actually enjoy each other's company, since unlike collaborations mandated by corporate roles, network-based efforts are fuelled by people choosing to spend time working together.

I was ambiguous about the "airport test", a term used sometimes in interviewing, which basically served to describe candidate fit and general sociability. My skepticism is that such a test might drive homogeneity. But if you consciously choose to network with a diverse group, the test is truly one where you wouldn't mind "being stuck in an airport with the person if all the flights are cancelled."

The best example, in my case, was when Alan and I missed our flights coming back from a client offsite, because he and I were discussing the futures of our children and his grandchildren, politics, economy, etc.

5. Be generous

I have been the recipient of generosity from a series of people -- clients, ex-clients, ex-bosses, friends, and sometimes, folks I may just have met in passing at a conference or via an email introduction.

And, as with all good criteria the opposites features have helped me recognise the people I am careful about letting in my network. If they are transactional, lack any sense of reciprocity, do not provide a sense of their expertise, don't share your values and are just plain cheap with their support...stay away from them!

Roopa Unnikrishnan -- a Rhodes Scholar, winner of a Commonwealth Games gold medal and the Arjuna Award, the Indian government's premier sporting honour -- is a management strategist with her own practice, Center10Consulting. Read her blog at

Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/