How to escape the networking rut

September 30, 2013: 11:50 AM ET

Why good leaders keep unlikely company.

By Sanyin Siang

130930112551-networking-620xaFORTUNE -- Having bid summer farewell, conferences and events have become staples in our calendars. Fall is when we meet new people, expand our networks, and reconnect with colleagues and contacts.

Too often, though, we get stuck in a networking rut. Naturally, we look to connect with people in our industries or similar lines of work to learn and to grow. But great leaders deliberately build relationships with those who seem counterintuitive to their networks. They understand that the most valuable insights often come from interacting with those who seem least like them.

Consider the case of Bill Weldon, Jeff Immelt, Ken Chenault, and Sam Palmisano. When they became CEOs of Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), General Electric (GE), American Express (AXP), and IBM (IBM), respectively, these four set up regular dinners to share ideas with each other, even though the industries they represented ran across health care, finance, tech, and manufacturing. This peer mentoring relationship helped these executives think differently about business problems that transcended their respective industries.

Frances Hesselbein, CEO of the Girl Scouts, revitalized a faltering organization during her tenure from 1976-1990 by reaching beyond the nonprofit sector and persuading business leaders and professors to work with her organization. She quadrupled membership to more than 2 million and mobilized a volunteer force of more than 700,000. Her leadership prompted the late management guru Peter Drucker to once call the Girl Scouts the "best managed organization in the country."

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Hesselbein's turnaround of the Girl Scouts caught the attention of the U.S. Army, which had been wrestling with an increasingly complex organization.

Conversations between then Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki and Hesselbein helped the army develop an approach to leadership development that relied less on formal authority and control and more on influence and cultivating a shared ownership of mission and purpose. Hesselbein and Shinseki collaborated on the adaptation of the Official Army Leadership Manual into a book that can be applied across all sectors and industries, titled Be, Know, Do.

People also tend to cluster with others "like us," those who are of a similar gender, race, culture, and age. Yet it's precisely the tension in these differences that can surface novel ideas and convince us to change our thinking.

I've written previously, for example, on the importance of seeking out mentors from both genders and including men in women's advancement. I've also seen the fruits of efforts to break down these barriers in my center's 2013 LifeChat Series on Women Leaders in the Sport Industry.

When asked to share a tough challenge or time of doubt, former pro soccer player Julie Foudy discussed her experience on the 2002 Secretary's Commission on Opportunities in Athletics, a federal advisory panel to study Title IX. Foudy was the youngest of the panel's 15 commissioners, and as the sole playing athlete, a minority among a group of athletic directors and university presidents. She was at times the voice of dissenting opinion and had to find the courage to speak her mind among high-ranking, older, and more experienced commissioners.

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Foudy sought out mentors. Given the issue, she might have been inclined to only ask women and fellow athletes for advice. But, in her LifeChat, Foudy discussed the mentorship of retired Sen. Birch Bayh, the "Father of Title IX." She reached out to the former senator, who spent hours reviewing documents with Foudy, and she learned more about the legislation's history. Foudy developed the confidence she needed to speak with authority during the commission's deliberations.

Beyond enriching our personal development as leaders, there is a larger imperative to forging counterintuitive connections: Today's business world operates amid tightly interdependent challenges. Just take a look at the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis and its cascading effects across the global economy. The boundaries are blurred not only across international borders, but also across private, public, and social sectors.

If we're not conscientious about engaging with those who seem different than us, we will put ourselves at greater risk of yet another (and another) crisis, or risk missing out on major opportunities. So, the next time you're at a meeting or a conference, seek out someone unexpected. You'll be the better for it.

Sanyin Siang is the Executive Director of Duke University's Coach K Leadership & Ethics Center (COLE). She is also the founder of Global Game Changers Network for innovation in the sport industry and an executive leadership coach.

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