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Business professor’s research shows value of networking

BOONE—Who’s in your network? Not the online networks like Facebook or LinkedIn but the network of people you turn to for career advice and support?

People who are part of this particular kind of network, a developmental network, whether it’s family, friends, coworkers or mentors, can play a vital role in a person’s career success. Knowing who they are, what kinds of support they can provide, and in what ways a person’s network might be lacking is useful whether you are a college student, entry-level employee or someone moving up the career ladder.

Rick Cotton, an assistant professor in Appalachian State University’s Walker College of Business, studies extraordinary career success, developmental networks and mentoring. He worked in consulting and human resources and was in charge of an organizational development and training team before becoming a university professor. Regardless of his role, he’s always been fascinated with the idea of how human capital and social capital intersect in the form of a network to help people to be successful.

“Perhaps the biggest dilemma in networks research is whether you should have a small network of very deep relationships or a very broad network of relationships that provide different, more specialized kinds of support,” he said.

His research while in graduate school and since coming to Appalachian helps answer that question.

While a doctoral student at Boston College, Cotton and his two co-authors analyzed acceptance speeches made by 62 Baseball Hall of Fame inductees and identified their network of supporters. “I was fascinated to see the variety of relationships they acknowledged and the kinds of support they cited in their speeches,” Cotton said. “We didn’t expect there would be so much emphasis in the speeches on friendship, emotional support and inspiration. In fact, psychological and social support made up 63 percent of the support cited.” These are interesting results for the ultra-competitive field of Major League Baseball where very tactical skills like pitching, hitting, fielding, and running might lead one to believe that coaching and sponsorship would be more important.

“On Becoming Extraordinary: The Content and Structure of the Developmental Networks of Major League Baseball Hall of Famers,” co-authored with University of Victoria professor Yan Shen and Boston College PhD candidate Reut-Livne-Tarandach, was recently published in the Academy of Management Journal.

Cotton further explored the role of network relationships and career success for his doctoral dissertation. He analyzed hall of famer acceptance speeches made by football, inventor, teacher, business, consumer electronics and automotive hall of fame inductees. “I wanted to go beyond baseball and identify key developmental roles that their mentors played,” Cotton said. “The top seven, what I call the super seven, were the most highly cited developmental roles across all the speeches. They were a parent, a spouse, a personal friend, a CEO or president of the person’s work organization, a manager, a work colleague and an unmet hero or idol.” Cotton then went on to explore perceptions of the ‘super seven roles’ and individual developmental networks in a larger, cross-industry sample.

In this sample, he again found that spouses were the most highly cited developer role and that they were often described as providing high levels of psychosocial, role modeling, and career support. “You don’t necessarily think of spouses in terms of being a high provider of career support but that was a consistent expectation across the 500-plus person sample, which ranged in age from 22-71,” Cotton said. “I don’t think a lot of spouses think of themselves as key providers of career support but they are, probably because they are often so readily accessible. It matters a lot who is in the immediate vicinity of your network and who you spend a lot of time with. You spend a lot of time with family and friends.”

Cotton concludes that the best networks are those that provide deep levels of psychosocial support – ones that provide overlapping support from family, friends, a partner or spouse as well as from others at work. When it comes to career support, rather than being supplementary, the career support should be more complementary in nature. Cotton said managers tend to provide an employee with career support and role modeling. An unmet hero or CEO tends to provide high levels of role modeling, but not psychosocial or career support, while a colleague tends to provide career support and some psychosocial support.

“The idea is to have career support from individuals who help you develop in different, complementary ways,” Cotton said. A great example is MLB Hall of Famer Joe Morgan who cited a scout who believed in him despite his short stature, Nellie Fox, a second baseman who taught him the nuances of playing his position, Billy Goodman, a coach who told him the timeless advice to ‘approach every season like you’re a rookie,’ a general manager for the Cincinnati Reds named Bob Howsam, who specifically acquired him to be part of the team, and a manager, Sparky Anderson, who got players like Perez, Rose, Bench and Morgan to work together to reach the team’s goals.”  What he got was complementary career support and what Morgan did was achieve excellence, Cotton added.

“These studies collectively showed that important developmental relationships come from both inside and outside the organization,” he said. “However, in today’s careers, with layoffs, employee mobility and often abrupt changes in managers and subordinates, developing deep relationships with people at work is a challenging proposition.” Cotton said it is often up to the individual to make the most of a challenging career environment.

“Understanding the different kinds of support provided by different individuals can be helpful when people think about where their network is lacking and what their goals are,” Cotton said.