Board Networking: Strong ties Vs weak ties

Board Networking Ties

We acknowledge that networking is important when looking for a board seat. In fact, the statics show that 65% of people are directly appointed to a board through a personal or professional connection. The old adage that it is “who you know, not what you know” is to some degree true. However, when it comes to the WHO, it will surprise you to discover which of your board networking contacts are most likely to result in a board seat. Understanding the value of weak and strong ties will make board networking easier and more effective.

Who are your strong and weak ties?

We all have both, strong and weak tie relationships in our personal and professional networks. A strong tie is defined as a connection between close-knit individuals. They are someone who you know well, and they know you. You interact with them regularly and freely with constructive 2-way conversations. You may not know everything about them, but you do know them pretty well. The key here is that the strong characteristic of the relationship is determined by emotional connection and familiarity.

Weak ties, on the other hand, are characterised by infrequent interactions or distant connections. Due to the infrequency of the relationship, they usually have no preconceived ideas of who you are or what you do. They also come with no emotional or professional attachment.

Weak ties – the statistics

According to a well-respected journalist Malcolm Gladwell, it is your Weak Ties that make you powerful. He points to sociologist Mark Granovetter (Stanford University) and his famous study “Getting a Job”. After surveying Boston workers, the study found that 56% got jobs through a personal connection. The study went further, concluding that most of those connections were considered weak ties. Only 17% of people who got a job through a personal connection saw that contact often. 55% saw them occasionally, and 28% saw them rarely – your ‘weak ties’.

83% of people who gained a job through a connection saw that person rarely or infrequently – weak ties. 

I regularly conduct surveys asking current board directors how they were appointed to their most recent board seat. My findings are very similar to the study above, with 65% of people telling me that they were appointed to a board through a personal or professional connection, with the vast majority of these connections being weak ties. So, yes, gaining a board seat is mainly about “who you know, not what you know”, but success only comes by focusing on the right ”‘who”, your weak ties.

Why strong ties are less valuable when board networking

When most of us think about who we can rely on to help us get a board seat, our strong ties come to mind. After all, they know you well, and you trust them. However, the very nature of being a strong tie makes them unlikely to help you get a board seat.

There are clear reasons why strong ties are unlikely to help you get a board seat:

    • Suppose your strong tie is a close friend. They are unlikely to recommend you for a board seat as they have never seen you operate in that sort of role.
    • Your strong ties think of you in some other professional or personal role – the lawyer, accountant, friend, busy CEO, retiree, entrepreneur, soccer coach etc. – and not a non-executive director. As a result, they don’t think of you when they hear of appointment opportunities.
    • They often know you too well, including your flaws and failings. They remember when your product launch failed or what you were like after that 2nd drink. They don’t want to risk either of your reputations.
    • They like you, but they may not rate you. They enjoy spending time with you personally, but may not think that you are good at what you do professionally or ready for a board seat. Recommendations will not be forthcoming.
    • Finally, and most importantly, they want to avoid damaging the strong friendship or relationship that you have built over so many years. Or you may risk damaging the relationship by asking them to help.

Some of these reasons may seem cruel or impersonal, but put yourself in their shoes. I am sure you have close friends or family members that, even though you love dearly, you would never recommend for a board seat or introduce to others who you know could help.

On the contrary, a weak is far more likely to help as they see no risk to the relationship with you and others by doing so.

How to build weak ties and enjoy board networking

Many of us are hardwired to hate networking. We find it particularly uncomfortable when creating relationships to promote our own careers, which includes a board portfolio career. But don’t let this put you off, as the very nature of a weak tie makes the board networking process amiable and less stressful. It does not require thick skin or attending laborious networking events.

Weak tie networking revolves around brief and fleeting interactions or connections that can yield meaningful outcomes. A chance meeting at a dinner or soccer training with the kids can lead to a board appointment. Several months ago, a client told me how he was appointed to a board seat after a casual day’s sailing with the father of his daughter’s friend. They started chatting about what each other did. As a result of this conversation, a board opportunity arose, and he was offered a seat on the board.

Weak tie board networking can be that easy with none of those uncomfortable situations we associate with networking. To be successful, however, you must have a board profile and a board pitch. You must be able to articulate what value you can add to a board and the types of board seats you are looking for in a 30-second board pitch.

There are three simple elements to consider when developing relationships with weak ties: curiosity, authenticity, and follow-through.

    • Curiosity shows that you want to learn about the other person, and asking questions will keep the conversation engaging. Listen, learn and take note of the conversation, as you never know when they or the information will become useful in the future.
    • Authenticity will come from a “How can I help?” mantra. Don’t think about the value you can extract from a conversation with a weak tie, but rather focus on the value you can give them. This approach will also help you feel more comfortable about the networking process.
    • Follow through on the offers of help that you make during the interaction. You will lose credibility and trust if you don’t follow through. Get it done as soon as possible before becoming distracted by something else.

Strong ties still have a place in Board Networking

Strong ties have a role in board networking, but you must know how best to use them. You need to find out if your strong tie is willing and able to assist you in gaining a board appointment. At the same time, you need to consider if doing so will jeopardise the relationship you have with them, whether it’s a business or personal relationship. If unsure, ask yourself, “Would a refusal to help offend you?”. If the answer is yes, then you know the relationship is not worth risking.

If you are comfortable going ahead, consider asking them for advice on pursuing a board seat, or seek their professional feedback on your suitability for a board role instead of upfront asking for help. Use them as a sounding board when determining what skills and experience you have to offer a board. They may even surprise you with offers of introductions or recommendations.

In Conclusion

These studies and statistics tell us that when board networking, you should primarily focus on weak ties. They also tell us that you are three times more likely to gain your board seat through an informal, even fleeting, connection than through an advertisement, headhunter or other formal means. Taking this into account, you should reconsider how much of your time you are spending pursuing a board seat via a formal, more competitive pathway. During my Board Appointment Coaching Program and How to Unlock Board Opportunities Masterclass, you will learn how to identify, reach out to and nurture weak ties. You will also write your board profile and learn how to articulate your board pitch. These training sessions are included in the PLUS Membership Package.

About the Author

David Schwarz is CEO & Founder of Board Appointments. He has over a decade of experience in putting people on boards as an international headhunter and recruiter. He has interviewed hundreds of directors and placed hundreds into some of the most significant public, private and NFP director roles in the world.

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