Great leaders have a knack for building meaningful relationships before they’re needed.

Networks are important. But do leaders grasp the difference between a powerful network and a mediocre one? The evidence suggests too few do. Yet the latest research from author Rob Cross reveals how networks, done properly, enhance both performance and wellbeing.

Many people also struggle with building and leveraging networks once they are established. “Social technologies and online platforms offer rapid means to connect and collaborate with a dizzying array of people,” Cross told me. “But it’s really about quality, not quantity.”

During fieldwork for his book Beyond Collaboration Overload, Cross interviewed 260 executives. They were consistent top performers, and scored highly on measures of thriving, resilience, career satisfaction and wellbeing. They shared another trait: all strived to minimize time wasted on over-collaboration – making them 18-24% more efficient and freeing time to invest in networking.

Cross credits sociologist Ronald Burt for laying the groundwork for this critical finding. “Burt showed that people with non-insular networks – those that encompass a diversity of perspectives, values and expertise – are more successful,” Cross said. “These structurally diverse networks often bridge expertise domains, cultures, geographical regions, functional areas, and other pockets of mastery and opinion. Interactions with people who are different from us enable us to see problems and opportunities in novel ways.”

Cross discovered that great leaders tend to exhibit a bilateral approach to networking: they build a network that enables them to harness immediate opportunities, and they actively nurture a diverse set of connections over the long term, helping them cultivate future opportunities.

This requires purposeful effort and dedicated time, not just a few hours in the margins for random conversations. The high-flyers interviewed were acutely conscious they were not just in a job, but on a trajectory. And, as Cross notes, “they built serendipity into their lives.”

The top leaders combined routines with chances to explore ideas across the network, often asking others how they would tackle a problem or who they would bring in to help. One consultant fielded a request for a proposal which was outside her firm’s core capability. She was advised to decline to bid. Yet she was able to do so thanks to two people in her network who had relevant expertise. The bid was successful and is now one of her firm’s largest accounts.

Cross highlights four practices for great networking. Set aside time each week to meet new colleagues or have exploratory conversations. Ask different people about an idea or a problem you are trying to solve. Use networking tools to prompt new thinking. And volunteer for events that bring you into contact with new people.

On wellbeing, Cross’s research is even more striking. Even in the face of the pandemic, the high performers found ways to connect and add ‘dimensionality’ to their lives, with richness, variety and breadth. Dimensionality supports physical health and relationships, two essentials for thriving; it requires the authenticity to examine what really matters to us and invest in those things. To Cross’s surprise, high performers did this exceptionally well – and described living a happier life. One successful woman, a 10,000m runner, realized she wasn’t spending enough fun time with family and friends. She stopped running alone and began training with her child, her child’s best friend and the best friend’s parent. This enabled her to exercise while connecting with others. Often, building dimensionality means nurturing connections in three or four separate groups outside work: athletic pursuits, volunteer work, civic or religious communities, book or dinner clubs and the ilk.

Rob Cross’s work reveals that leaders truly hit their stride when they pursue diverse interests and activities that yield meaningful relationships and insights. Great networks enrich our opportunities at work – and beyond.