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One of the happiest, most successful executives we know is a woman named Deb. She works at a major technology company and runs a global business unit that has more than 7,000 employees. When you ask her how she rose to the top and why she enjoys her job, her answer is simple: people. She points to her boss, the CEO, a mentor who “always has her back”; Steve, the head of a complementary business, with whom she has monthly brainstorming lunches and occasional gripe sessions; and Tom, a protégé to whom she has delegated responsibility for a large portion of her division. Outside the company, Deb’s circle includes her counterparts in three strategic partnerships, who inspire her with new ideas; Sheila, a former colleague, now in a different industry, who gives her candid feedback; and her husband, Bob, an executive at a philanthropic organization. She also has close relationships with her fellow volunteers in a program for at-risk high school students and the members of her tennis group and book club.
This is Deb’s social network (the real-world kind, not the virtual kind), and it has helped her career a lot. But not because the group is large or full of high-powered contacts. Her network is effective because it both supports and challenges her. Deb’s relationships help her gain influence, broaden her expertise, learn new skills, and find purpose and balance. Deb values and nurtures them. “Make friends so that you have friends when you need friends” is her motto.
“My current role is really a product of a relationship I formed over a decade ago that came back to me at the right time,” she explains. “People may chalk it up to luck, but I think more often than not luck happens through networks where people give first and are...