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Want to bring people together? Skip the usual networking event and instead work & learn together (REVIEW)

friend of a friendThis review first ran in the July 7th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Friend of a Friend: Understanding the Hidden Networks That Can Transform Your Life and Your Career

By David Burkus

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

$38

Wash dishes or mix and mingle?

This is one introvert who’d happily roll up his sleeves, fill the sink and start scrubbing.

At Jon Levy’s parties, you get to do both.

You don’t just get invited to an Influencer Dinner at Levy’s home in New York City. You help cook the meal, set the table and clear the dishes.

Levy has one rule while everyone’s in his kitchen. You ditch the script that’s followed at every networking event. You can’t tell anyone who you are or talk about what you do for a living. You’re on a first-name basis until everyone sits down for dinner. You then break bread by trying to guess each other’s identity and profession.

Instead of making meals together, Pixar Animation Studios runs an in-house university for employees. Yes, you can take courses on how to draw. But you can also sign up for  everything from improv comedy and painting to acting and belly dancing.

Everyone can take up to four hours of paid work time every week to take courses. And you can excuse yourself from meetings that are booked when you’re supposed to be in class.

The value of the university is in the internal networks that get built, with frontline staff and new hires learning alongside senior executives and veterans from across the company.

Working together brings people together. Levy’s dinners and Pixar’s university also get around a common pitfall with traditional networking events. Along with being a painful exercise for introverts, we tend to go to events and strike up conversations with people we already know, who are in the same line of work as us and share the same view of the world.

This approach pretty much negates the whole point of building a network. We’re not meeting new people, expanding our thinking, questioning our reasoning or getting the diversity of ideas, insights and feedback we need.

“Networking events don’t bring us truly new contacts,” says David Burkus, a business school professor with an expertise in network science and author of Friend of a Friend.

“Instead, research suggests we are better off engaging in activities that draw a cross-section of people and letting those connections form naturally as we engage with the task at hand. You may not be focused on networking while you participate in such activities, but after you finish, you’ll find that you have gathered a host of new and interesting people that now call you friend.”

Research also shows that you want to be the person who, like Jon Levy with his dinner parties, serves as the broker and bridge between networks of people who would otherwise never meet. “The most connected people inside a tight group within a single industry are less valuable than the people who span the gaps between groups and broker information back and forth,” says Burkus.

“Playing in between the clusters and connecting them to each other can provide huge advantages not just for brokers but also for the organizations they work with.”

Burkus shows how to make and strengthen the connections that will have an outsized impact on your work and career.  “Your network is influencing you, and so you better begin influencing your network. Navigating your network deliberately – making choices about who your friends are and being aware of who is a friend of a friend – can directly influence the person you become, for better or worse. Your friend of a friend is your future.”

And if you’ve got a friend in me if you need someone to wash and rinse the dishes at your next networking event.

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

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