Networking in a virtual world

Lots of blocks with speech bubbles on top all connected with white lines. This is symbolic to networking in a virtual world.

Coca-Cola HBC’s Group Talent Director and CEMS board member, Audrey Clegg, reflects on networking lessons from the pandemic and explores how large corporates can hardwire networking opportunities in their digital structures

‘I was a headstrong child,’ says Coca-Cola HBC’s Group Talent Director, Audrey Clegg with a smile. ‘I got that from my father. But fortunately my mother was emotionally intelligent. She knew if I wanted to do something, I’d really go for it. And if I didn’t… we’d probably end up fighting.’

That simple lesson has been at the core of Audrey’s learning, development and networking philosophy ever since: let people drive their own careers, give them the opportunities and experiences they need to explore what they love to do and encourage them to talk about it.

Networking isn’t a race

‘Networking takes a lot of energy so you need some fuel,’ says Audrey, who is also a board member at CEMS (the Global Alliance in Management Education). ‘If you’re doing what you enjoy, then, you’re getting free refills.

‘You don’t set off on a long journey – possibly the longest journey of your life – without planning. It’s the same with growing a network. You plot where you want to go carefully, who you need help from to get you there and then check in regularly to make sure you’re on track.’

Planning and strategy is even more important in the virtual world, Audrey believes: ‘It’s unbelievably easy to get side-tracked when you’re online. Follow a signpost on a little detour and you could be gone for hours. So decide how long you want for a particular task – checking your LinkedIn feed, for example – and then set a timer on your phone.’

Hardwired networking and an internal growth engine

Some institutions leave networking to individuals but others seek to help their people do it more effectively. Last year, Audrey and the Coca-Cola HBC Talent Team launched what they call their ‘Opportunity Marketplace’. It connects business demands, big and small, with people who can meet them and gain skills and visibility at the same time.

Alongside international collaboration and maximising employee skillsets, a core component of the initiative is providing a digital platform for managers to post assignments. Employees complete a profile and are alerted when relevant opportunities arise.

So far, around 1,500 people have applied to more than 300 projects through the platform, of which 92% are already completed already  – with an estimated 15K person-hours saved.

‘As with all digital change, you need behaviour change,’ observes Audrey. ‘But we had a great team who got the tech right. The benefits were clear so people took to posting fast.’

Examples include: programmers wanted for an initiative that automatically tracks hardware assets across the group; bartenders with a talent for social media to boost Coca-Cola HBC’s new spirits categories; recycling experts to design a collection scheme for aluminium capsules used in Costa Coffee outlets; marketeers to keep up to date on promotion strategies; and learning specialists to share best practice leadership behaviours.

Among Coca-Cola HBC’s 35,000 people in 28 countries, the chance encounters that create new ideas or the foundations for future collaborations can be hard to come by, especially in recent times. But light-hearted postings help to form new relationships and opportunities. For example, Brand Ambassador, Motunrayo Abiona in Nigeria, posted for a DJ for a virtual party and found Talent Lead Peter Vaszondi in Hungary. ‘He rocked the house,’ says Audrey.

The network effect

As the Opportunity Marketplace is a genuine network, the opportunities flow both ways. A number of Coca-Cola HBC leaders are using it to crowdsource insights they need when they take on new roles.

Maria Anargyrou Nikolic, for example, moved back to her native Greece to become Country Manager after 10 years working in other markets for Coca-Cola HBC. Longing to know how culture and customers had changed in her absence, she posted for help and found mentors to brief and guide her.

‘We’re seeing many similar short-term opportunities posted for recent graduates on the platform,’ says Audrey. ‘So even if you don’t get on to one of our graduate programmes, there are lots of ways to vary your experience and build your network in an entry-level or early career job. And we have plenty of them – today, for example, there are around 150 such roles in our network.’

In conclusion, then, there are ways to max your network, even in a Covid-19 world. But as with beating the virus, the most successful solution is a combination of humanity and science, according to Audrey.  

‘Be warm, treat people as you’d like to be treated but stay focused and use the data. Plus, always ask prospective employers how they can help you build your network. Any organisation of reasonable size ought to have some good tools and platforms in place. If not, keep looking. It’s a key ingredient for a successful future.’

Audrey Clegg is Coca-Cola HBC’s Group Talent Director, where she leads its mission to get the right people, in the right roles, at the right time and grow the business. She is on the boards of CEMS (the Global Alliance in Management Education), Esade Business School and the Vedica Scholars Programme in India.

7 tips for thriving in your workplace

7 tips for thriving in your workplace

office tree plant thrive growth
office tree plant thrive growth

For recent graduates and professionals seeking their first real taste of working life, thriving in your workplace is vital. After all, this is the first step in what will be an illustrious career for you, so you want to make it count by being the best you can be.

Truly thriving in your workplace can also only increase your job security, help you network internally, raise your confidence and help with career progression down the line.

Here are a few tips for those who are looking to maximise their chances of thriving in the workplace:

1. Set up quarterly targets with your manager

In some industries, like sales, your performance will be entirely measured on targets. However, why not set some individual professional goals to achieve with your manager too? These are ones that you won’t share with the rest of the office.

It’s always good to have something to work towards and it should ensure that you are constantly developing. Plus, you’re bound to work more efficiently and with more motivation if you’re chasing a goal, rather than simply praying that the clock hands move faster.

2. Write out daily and weekly targets

Setting more frequent goals is an excellent way to motivate yourself. Each Monday morning, for example, you could set out what you want to achieve for the rest of the week.

The best part is, these goals don’t even have to be work-related. They can include something as simple as talking to your colleagues at lunch in order to improve your working relationships or using your break to walk around a park and get some fresh air.

Writing out a to-do list each morning, meanwhile, can keep you organised and on top of your tasks for the day. It also helps you to see where you might have free time to ask for more work. Organisation is a key strength you need in order to thrive at work.

3. Work with your colleagues

If you’re an introvert, this can be difficult. However, working alongside your colleagues can play a huge part in not only enjoying your job, but perhaps thriving in your role too. 

For recent graduates, this is likely going to be your first experience of a full-time working environment. You don’t want your first proper job to be awful, do you? This is the start of your career, so you need to hit the ground running.

Show your colleagues that you aren’t a deer caught in headlights and offer your knowledge and insight into projects. Plus, don’t be too proud to ask for help or to work on certain tasks in the first few months. This will enable you to bounce ideas off your colleagues, gain some invaluable knowledge of how tasks are completed and start building a strong professional network.

4. Lead meetings or projects

For recent graduates, confidence in your new role is key. From the very start, you want to show that you belong in this environment and you’re far more likely to thrive in your workplace if you feel confident.

You’re never going to gain leadership skills by taking a back seat. So, why not take some initiative and put yourself forward? Whether this is asking to lead meetings, client calls or projects, putting yourself in these positions is an excellent way to acclimatise yourself to working life. It also sets you up nicely for career progression too!

5. Hone your key skills

If you’re good at something, whether that’s a certain task or use of a specific software, demonstrate your ability. When starting a new job, doing something you know you’re good at will fill you with confidence.

What’s more, you may become the go-to person in the office that people come to when they need help with a task you’re proficiently skilled at. This will ensure you thrive in your workplace, and allow you to develop your best skills to a level of expertise.

6. Jump into the deep end

However, don’t just focus purely on one particular skill you have. You don’t want to be a one-trick pony. This can damage your chances of getting a better-paid position or promotion, as employers will always pick an employee who can offer versatility in their skill set.

Learn new skills, put yourself out of your comfort zone – these are just a few examples of what you can do to improve your versatility. If you’re worried about the consequences, make sure you have a few safety nets to fall back on. For example, ask a senior colleague to listen in on your client call so they can help you if you get stuck.

7. Are you ready to thrive in the workplace?

In order to secure career progression and get higher paid jobs in the future, you need to be the best you can be in your current role. When applying for new jobs, you will most likely have to use your existing employer as a reference. It goes without saying that if you thrive in their company, they’re far more likely to give you a glowing reference.

Make sure to follow these tips whether starting a new job, or if you just want to improve in your current role. Thriving in the workplace goes a long way to helping your career!

Lee Biggins is the CEO and Founder of CV-Library, an independent job board in the UK. Having launched the company from his bedroom nearly two decades ago, Lee has since seen CV-Library grow from strength to strength, and he is now committed to growing Resume-Library, its US sister site.

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Creativity as an import-export business: network your way to innovation

Creativity as an import-export business: network your way to innovation

Good, innovative ideas have social origins, so become a bridge between different groups to broker breakthroughs, advises Judith Perle

Networks are vital to innovation. True or false? 

I make my living by teaching people about networking – what it is, why it’s helpful and, crucially, how to do it better. So perhaps you won’t be surprised if my answer to the question above is, unequivocally ‘true’. 

I’m not alone in my view; in fact, a plethora of academic research – and practical business experience – supports my stance and, over these two pages, I will take a look at some of the evidence.

First out of the hat is the work of Ronald Burt, Professor of Sociology and Strategy at the University of Chicago. In a 2014 study, ‘Structural Holes and Good Ideas’ published in  the American Journal of Sociology, he reported on the findings of a survey of 673 managers who ran the supply chain of a large US electronics corporation. 

Burt looked at the shape and size of their professional networks, and how they interacted with colleagues within their business units, as well as elsewhere within and outside the company. Second, he measured two things: the likelihood of their expressing a new idea, and the likelihood that senior management would engage with that idea and judge it to be valuable.

Burt’s results show that innovation isn’t necessarily born out of individual genius or, to use a well-worn cliché, ‘blue-sky thinking’. Instead he demonstrates that the individuals who build diverse networks, so that they themselves become bridges (or brokers) between different social or professional groups, are at greater ‘risk of having a good idea’. 

Why? As Burt puts it: ‘An idea mundane in one group can be a valuable insight in another.’

Not rocket science, perhaps. But the idea that good, innovative ideas have ‘social origins’ is powerful nevertheless. To quote Burt’s own succinct phrase in the same report: ‘This is not creativity born of genius; it is creativity as an import-export business’. 

Innovators aren’t necessarily exceptionally smart people with exceptionally creative minds – bright sparks who think differently. They can be people just like you and me, who do two very important things differently: they mix with a wide variety of individuals – not just their close friends – and they listen as well as talk.

But not all networks are the same. 

In 2010, Louise Mors, Professor of Strategic Management and Globalisation at Copenhagen Business School, conducted a study of a global consulting firm and her findings were published in Strategic Management Journal under the title ‘Innovation in a global consulting firm: When the problem is too much diversity’. Mors set out to understand more clearly ‘how network structure affects the ability of individual managers to innovate’.

To innovate successfully, partners and senior managers in knowledge-based businesses actually have to deal with two challenges. First, they have to find novel information and ideas. And second, they need to be able to evaluate them, spread the word and, finally, implement them. Successful innovation isn’t just about having good ideas. Putting these ideas into practice and getting buy-in from colleagues is equally important.

Mors found that managers deal with both of these challenges by nurturing and tapping into different sorts of personal networks, both within and outside the organisation. She reported that finding innovative ideas is best achieved through an open network, in which relatively few people are connected to each other. Interacting with a very wide variety of people, from different backgrounds and with different mindsets, exposes managers to more and more varied ideas. 

On the other hand, if an innovator wants to implement a new idea or persuade others to do so, it’s easier if his or her network is denser, with more overlapping connections. In her study, Mors doesn’t explain why, but it is safe to assume that the people in these denser networks talk to and respect one another. 

You don’t necessarily need to convince each and every member of your network separately; by talking to each other they will help spread the word, and do some of the work for you.

In a very different study among open source software developers, Karim Lakhani, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, came up with similar findings: often, he says, it was ‘outsiders – those with expertise at the periphery of a problem’s field – who were most likely to find answers and do so quickly’.

Open innovation

Many organisations recognise that networks and networking are critical to innovation. That’s why they are realising the need to encourage their staff to mingle and talk to each other, both internally and with colleagues in the wider business network, on a social, as well as a purely instrumental, level. Water coolers, canteens and social activities all have an important role to play – as do more formal contexts such as conferences, seminars and other professional gatherings.

It’s also why so many mega-corporations are turning to open innovation in order to maintain their competitive advantage. Instead of confining innovation within a fortress-like, internal research and development lab, corporates such as Procter and Gamble and GlaxoSmithKline are demolishing those walls and asking the network to provide new ideas and new solutions. 

Everyone benefits

Returning to Burt, it’s interesting to note his data revealed that active networkers, who act as brokers between groups, reap personal benefits too in the form of ‘more positive performance evaluations, faster promotions, higher compensation and more successful teams’. Put simply, there’s plenty of evidence to show that by nurturing a wide-ranging network, individuals are much more likely to be successful in their careers. 

So what’s good for your employer in terms of successful innovation, turns out to be good for you too.

The benefits of socially generated innovation aren’t confined to individuals, or even ‘joined together’ as companies, though. Cities and societies can benefit from this too. 

Richard Florida, Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute and Professor of Business and Creativity at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, has developed what he calls the Gay Concentration Index, which he describes in his book The Rise Of The Creative Class. He writes that the tolerance a city shows for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people correlates rather well with how successful that city is in today’s fast-moving world. 

That’s not because people who are homosexual are more creative or intelligent.

It is simply because diversity leads to innovation and innovation leads to prosperity. The Gay Concentration Index is just a shorthand technique for measuring diversity. To quote Florida: ‘Cities with thriving arts and cultural climates and openness to diversity of all sorts… enjoy higher rates of innovation and high-wage economic growth.’

A case in point: Eureka

Reading about academic studies which show that networks can be the key to innovation is all well and good, but sometimes it’s easier to be motivated when you hear an engaging case study – so here’s a real story that Shell transformed into a short film for an advertising campaign a couple of years
back. (You can watch the film online).

The film shows Jaap van Ballegoolien, an engineer with Shell, who is struggling to find a way of tapping thousands of small pockets of oil in an oil field in south-east Asia. The only viable way of reaching the oil would be to drill thousands of wells – a solution which is both uneconomic and environmentally unacceptable.

On a visit home, Jaap takes his teenage son Max out for a hamburger and milkshake. As they talk, Max turns his straw upside down, bends the top and uses it to suck every last bit of gloopy milkshake from the bottom of the glass. Jaap is mesmerised – and an innovative solution to his technical problem in south-east Asia is born.

At the end of the film, we see Jaap proudly presenting his ‘bendy straw drill’ to colleagues. This innovative technology, born of an observant mind and a chance encounter, allows a single bendy pipeline to reach numerous pockets of oil.

In brief

If constant and continuous innovation is at least one of the keys to success in today’s fast-changing world, then it’s important to have more – and better – good ideas yourself, and to empower your teams to do the same. The answer isn’t simply to hire creative types, to ‘try harder’ or ‘be more focused’. In fact, sometimes, trying a little bit less and chatting a little bit more just might reap more benefits. 

Networking is about people. Talking to people, helping people and getting involved in their lives. Those who don’t mingle only with colleagues in the same company, the same department or the same sector, are more likely to be exposed to different ways of doing things. And so long as they are open enough to listen, creative enough to envisage possibilities, and perhaps humble enough to ask, they’ll be better able to transfer and adapt ideas from one context to another. Networking alone probably won’t give rise to a flood of innovation. But networking actively, and encouraging it among colleagues and staff, will certainly shorten the odds in favour of creating an innovative culture.

Judith Perle

Judith Perle became involved in management training after completing the Sloan Fellowship at London Business School (LBS). While at LBS, she and her colleague Tony Newton realised that although many leaders pride themselves on having the hard skills to get the job done, these technical skills often only ‘get you through the door’. Success often depends on the ‘softer’ interpersonal skills that are too often overlooked or under-valued. Judith brings to her training work experience in business communication gained over a career in publishing, branding and new business development. 

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