Who do you know? Leveraging personal networks in talent and succession

Wednesday 10th February, 2016

The CEO has resigned. That means the CFO will follow shortly, they came from X together you know. Watch, the strategy team will be next, and that’s just for starters...

This type of scenario is not as sensational as it might first appear. We have all seen a seemingly solid ‘A team’ disintegrate. The collapse can be swift or slow, happening either immediately after the departure of the ‘key person’, or dying a slow, protracted death over time. Either way, the dominoes fall because a personal network dissolution has been triggered to the detriment of the organisation.

Of course, the reverse also happens. New hires bring their team and/or refer people to the benefit of an organisation. The process has a compounding effect, with every new recruit tapping their own personal network of potential talent. Within large global organisations it is not uncommon for the outcome to number well into the hundreds over a relatively short period.

For the purposes of this blog, a personal network is defined as a group of individuals whom have built a relationship which transcends the requirements and parameters of the workplace; individuals in the personal network proactively promote, defend and support each other. These personal networks can be very diverse and can include people at very different organisational levels. Don’t scoff, one of the most powerful personal networks I have ever personally observed was the ‘smokers’ at one UK firm.placeholder They didn’t work together and ranged in organisational status, but they were tightly bound by their habit, and if the CEO ever wanted an off-line message to spread in the organisation, all she needed to do was mention it to any one of the ‘smokers’.

Personal networks coalesce in many other ways and can be difficult to define by the outsider, but they are usually bound by a commonality. From a talent perspective, one of the most prominent personal networks that impact organisations are those relationships built early on within people’s careers. These relationships can be enduring and often represent an organisation’s unofficial alumni.

What makes personal networks so influential? Trust. People place significantly more trust in their managers and personal networks than organisations when it comes to managing their careers. Year after year it seems further research is released that demonstrates employee loyalty and engagement to organisations are at an all-time low. With these low levels of organisational loyalty and engagement, the default position for many employees is to trust their personal connections.

The power and influence of personal networks in business is nothing new. The old adage: It’s not just what you know, but who you know encapsulates this perfectly. And while I recognise the pull of personal networks is only one element of many factors that contribute to why someone chooses to work for an organisation, I would argue that the concept is not fully exploited when managing talent and succession from an organisational perspective. Specifically, too few organisations seriously consider personal networks in the context of strategic talent and succession management.

This phenomenon is both an opportunity and a threat for organisations.

A small minority of forward-thinking organisations are already incorporating and leveraging the impact of personal networks. For them, the peaks and troughs of talent acquisition and succession planning still exist, but not as acutely as for those that continue to take a transactional, role by role approach. These organisations see beyond single hires, they see talent pools - we rarely need to look far for examples of organisations that morph a competitor’s top talent into their own, starting with one or two key people.

The same advanced organisations already have an accurate and benchmarked view of their own talent and their competitors’ via competitor talent intelligence, internal and external talent mapping and integrated succession approaches. They have also made strategic hires of key individuals to fill capability shortages from purpose-built external talent pools and ongoing succession programs. In addition, they have benchmarked their employee value proposition.

The crux of my message is that:

-  Personal networks are powerful and underutilised by most organisations
-  There are almost certainly some people in your organisation who have more ‘talent value’ and ‘talent impact’ than their structural position might convey
-  The movement of these key individuals into and out of organisations does not occur in a vacuum, other people will follow
-  Organisations that take a more holistic approach to talent and succession management and consider the impact of personal networks are better placed to make informed talent decisions
-  Forward-thinking organisations that understand the power of personal networks are already courting and socialising your best talent. Maybe not for an immediate role, but they are doing the ground work


To find out how to leverage personal networks in your talent strategy, please contact us.

Peter Hood is an Executive Director of Evolve Intelligence, a leading talent and intelligence firm focussed on succession management, competitor intelligence, talent benchmarking, talent solutions and board services.