Networking Your “6 Degrees of Separation”

It’s invaluable, but it’s not about you, explains Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and author of Lose the Resume, Land the Job. For more information, see

My biggest career lesson is that the world is indeed flat. Someone you know knows somebody who knows someone who knows someone who knows somebody who knows you!

I was reminded of this the other day when an executive I know called me to say he had just interviewed a CEO candidate. During the interview, the executive asked where the candidate lives. When the candidate mentioned a city in California, the executive replied, “My dearest friends, Bill and Lois Smith, live there.” The candidate couldn’t believe the coincidence. “Bill and Lois are my next-door neighbors.”

Hearing this story, I could only hope, for the candidate’s sake, that he brings in the trash cans and that his dog doesn’t make a mess on Bill’s lawn. The six degrees of separation—the idea that anyone can be connected to any other person through a chain of acquaintances with no more than five intermediaries—isn’t just a theory in business and your career; it’s a reality!

Over my career, I’ve seen this played out thousands of times. Networking is about using these connections to your advantage. Ask anyone you know how they landed their current job, and almost always it was because they knew someone (…who someone, who knew somebody…) who opened a door.

But the biggest misconception is that networking is about you. It’s the opposite. It’s about the other person. This is especially important when you start a new job. That’s when your networking should kick up a notch. For one thing, news of your job change will probably spread through your network, especially when you update your LinkedIn profile with your new job title and links to your new employer. You will probably receive some congratulatory emails—and some requests from people in your network for career advice based on how you landed your new job. They may be where you were at the start of this process: They want to change jobs but don’t have a clue about how and where to start. Pay it forward!

Your recent experience in the job market—what worked, what didn’t, and the dos and don’ts of interviewing—will help the next person. This is another way to develop and enhance your network by focusing first on what you can give. You should be known as someone who’s genuinely interested in others. But that’s not all. Your new company is a network. Approach it every day in that way. It will pay off in the long run, and in the short term there are huge payoffs.

Companies have formal organizational charts, policies, and procedures. Yet in almost every company, there is a unique culture of how things are actually accomplished. I call this the informal network—the influencers, the people to whom you turn to get things done. Immediately talk to your peers to figure out this network: “Who are the influencers?” “How can I best work with her?” “What does he appreciate or dislike?”

Most people, though, don’t think of their jobs this way. They walk around in a state of comfortable numbness (to paraphrase Pink Floyd). Instead of leading with their ACT—being authentic, making a connection, and giving others a taste of who they are—they give too little thought to the lasting impression they’re making.

As you take the time to build and nurture your network, you’ll have a great asset at your disposal—whether for finding a new job or advancing to next promotion.