By Hilary Briggs, London Chairman of the Academy for Chief Executives

“It’s not what you know — it’s who you know”. If this is true (and it often appears to be) should your network be broad (lots and lots of people) or deep (fewer people, but stronger relationships)?

Having invested time in building my network over a number of years, and being a firm believer in the Law of Reciprocity, I have a wide network of contacts that can be of direct help to me, but more often help to others I come across. For instance, I happened to mention to someone during a 1-1 after a networking event that I was working on a project where one of the challenges was to build a database capable of storing around 2,000 graphical images. He suggested I speak to an IT specialist he knew — Ken — who had experience of that kind of thing. When we met up it turned out that Ken could also write software to automate the back-office processes — ensuring a lean and efficient operation.

I met John at an Entrepreneurs World lunch event. He had many business interests, though my ears pricked up when he mentioned a TV business he was still connected with. I wondered if it might be an opportunity for a client of mine, who specialised in producing content. I connected them and 6 months later, Liz landed a deal with John.

In turn, I have benefited too; Monica, whom I met through Toastmasters International, wanted a speaker for an Association dinner and liked my speaking style. During her event, I was sitting next to the Managing Director of a Corporate Finance house. We followed up this meeting and although I had a couple of potential contacts for him, nothing transpired. Until 8 moths later, when I was involved with a project requiring £2.5m funding and he was able to offer great advice.

So no doubt, there are benefits to having a broad network of contacts. Adding value to contacts helps to build the relationship and increases the chances that something, somewhere will come back to you.

But what about depth? What comes from depth of a relationship is trust and confidence. There are two situations in particular I’d like to illustrate. The first is where there is a specific need, a bit like in some of the examples above, however there is much more at stake and hence just a one-off meeting and occasional touch call would not build a close enough relationship to allow anything to happen.

For instance, Stuart and Helen had been members of the Academy for Chief Executives for over 2 years. Helen’s business was struggling due to the recession, and because Stuart knew her (and her strengths and weaknesses) he decided to invest in her business and bring in a further contact of his to help turn the business around.

Another opportunity within a focused business group arose when Louise mentioned that she was having trouble getting Planning permission for an extension on her farm house. Clive, an architect, was also in the group, and because she’d got to know him and his particular expertise — dealing with tough Planning issues — she was able to engage him and is now well on the way to having her dream house.

Secondly, there is the opportunity to use a closer-knit group with trusting relationships as a sounding board to thrash out challenging business issues — for instance a de-merger, or perhaps work-life balance issues that are so easily put to the bottom of the pile, or how to deal with a tricky employee situation.

I find in talking to many business contacts, that they typically have people around them whom they use for informal advice. For example, family, friends, MBA alumni and the like. The only snag with this is that we often attract people like us — similar mindsets and values — so we risk approaching problems from similar perspectives and thus risk missing alternative scenarios. As one member of my ACE group Bee Kemball, MD of Debach Enterprises said, “It really opened my eyes to witness the diverse approaches people would take to the same problem.” She has broadened her own management team during the last year as a result of this awareness.

So I’d advocate you need both breadth and depth in your network. Spend a few moments thinking about how you’d score your network for each on a 1-10 scale. If you’re not where you’d like to be - take steps to remedy it.

To increase breadth: Get talking to people! It can be just as effective through your hobbies, friends and family contacts — as well as striking up conversations with strangers (I won £2.5k worth of business from talking to a lady next to me on a train!)

To increase depth: Think about what areas of expertise would really add to your current contacts and seek out a Non-Executive. Explore groups such as the Academy for Chief Executives where you meet your fellow members monthly with the specific focus of picking up fresh perspectives to help you resolve any business or personal issues that might be holding you back.

Finally, if you’re considering joining a networking organisation, make sure the membership is diverse and that some structure exists for in-depth discussions. This way you will be able to develop both depth and breadth.

About the Author: Hilary Briggs, chairman of the Central London group for the Academy for Chief Executives, is passionate about helping businesses grow.
During her earlier career, she was Logistics Director for Rover Group Large Cars; European Product Marketing Director for Dishwashing, Whirlpool Corporation and Managing Director of Laird Group plc’s German-based Car Body Sealing Division, with a turnover of £200m and over 4,000 employees worldwide.

For more information see: www.hilarybriggs.co.uk