07/31/2011 06:03 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2011

Did you Build your Network by Design or Default?

When you built your network, how did you decide to whom you should connect and why?
That may seem like a strange question to many. After all, how many of us set out deliberately to develop a specific network? For most people they evolve naturally, don't they?

I attended an excellent inaugural meeting of the Like Minds Business Book Club at The Hospital Club in London recently. The speaker was Scott Belsky, author of Making Ideas Happen. During his talk Scott referred to the community as a key ingredient in an effective creative process that sees ideas turned into reality. One of the challenges facing many creative people, he said, is disorganised networks.

"Creatives are lazy", said Scott. "They go with the networks around them."
Is that just a flaw in creative people, or is it something we all do? Indeed, is it really a flaw?
The timing of Scott's comment could not have been more pertinent. On the way to the event I had been reading an article in the latest edition of Harvard Business Review. In the article, A Smarter Way to Network,by Rob Cross and Robert Thomas, the authors argue that the most successful executives have a diverse but select network, rather than having broad or high level networks.

Cross and Thomas point to the value of networks that are made up of a cross-section of contacts who each challenge and/or support the executives in different ways. Some will come from within their own company or industry, others from other fields entirely. They point to six areas in which a network should offer support. These are:

1 - Offer new information or expertise
2 - Mentors and influencers
3 - Feedback and challenging - pushing you to be better
4 - Friendship and personal support
5 - Provide a sense of value or worth
6 - Promote work/life balance.

If we are building our networks by chance (or default) rather than by design, how can we be sure that we are achieving the right balance of each area of support?
Cross and Thomas believe that an effective network contains a small set of core contacts. They state that effective core networks typically range in size from 12 to 18 people. Many of us would call this our 'inner circle' but would have built that inner circle based on the depth of relationships rather than by design based on our needs.

How well does your inner circle reflect the 6 needs outlined by Cross and Thomas above?
During the presentation, one attendee asked Scott Belsky whether, during a career transition, she should seek support from her existing network or look to make new contacts. Cross and Thomas's article would suggest to me that she should look first to her existing network for where she can draw on the support outlined above, before then expanding her connections to fill in the gaps.

In fact, the Harvard Business Review article goes on to suggest the four steps to building a better network.

1 - Analyse - look at your existing network and ask yourself what you get out of interacting with them
2 - De-layer - make some hard decisions to back away from redundant and energy-sapping relationships
3 - Diversify - build your network out with the right kind of people
4 - Capitalise - Make sure you're using your contacts as effectively as you can.

This approach may seem cold and impersonal to many. In fact, when I tweeted the question "If you wanted to build your network, how would you decide to whom you should connect?", some of the responses focused on finding people you could help, rather than vice versa.
It is healthy to take an outward-facing networking approach and seek to help others first. But when looking to your own business or career goals, surely it is imperative that you take a step back and ask whether the network you have built is designed to help you reach them as quickly and effortlessly as possible? Not one of the responses to my tweet mentioned building a network based on achieving goals.

Maybe it's not just creatives. Maybe we all "go with the networks around us".
What do you think? Should we just let networks evolve or should we be more focused on designing the network that best fits our needs?

If you do feel that we should design a powerful network, do you agree with the six areas of support recommended by Cross and Thomas, or how would you decide to whom you should connect and why?