logos Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO) Kellogg School of Management
Brian Uzzi Brian Uzzi

Tips for Interviewing Senior Leaders and Organizing the Research Team

In the interview:
Assure the leaders that their names are kept confidential: You can use an alias.

Find out the leader's "philosophy of networks." How does the leader use relationships to get things accomplished. Ask about the specific types of situations in which networks play a dominant role.

You should go into the interview with a set of questions, but remember that asking direct questions about executives' views on networking may put them make them uncomfortable. Try to get them to tell you stories and then use their stories to guide your questions by connecting specific stories to general patterns of behavior. Use your questions as an outline but be prepared to give up your sequencing depending on the direction of the interview. If you try to stick too closely to your outline you are likely to lose the interviewee's attention and stall the interview when the conversation shifts in another fruitful direction. If you are concerned about missing something important, circle back to it at a later point in the interview.

It is important to probe during the interview. If your interviewee makes a general statement such as, "I use trust to build my network." Ask, "How do you build trust?" "What approaches do you use and under what circumstances?" "What activities don't work?" "If you do X, won't Y be a possible unanticipated consequence?" This is the best way to get fine-grained and accurate information about how networks are used by your interviewees.

Organizing Your Team for the Research:
First, you will interview your manager, one-on-one, to understanding of his/her network.

Second, during the interview collect information on two network factors. One, identify the network structure (number of ties, key superconnectors, echo chambers, etc). These factors broadly define the resources potentially available to the interviewee/manager. Identify core relationships, the size of networks, and network membership. Drawing a sociogram will help. Two, find out how your interviewee manages different relationships in the network. This step is important because it links the structure of the network to strategic actions and the optimization of the opportunities embedded in the network structure.

Third, share your insights and findings with your team with to develop a research report that identifies the success and failure patterns that existed across your leaders.

Collecting Information:
Here are some questions to get you started - they are far from exhaustive and are presented as possible questions that you can use in your analysis. Your specific questions should be tailored to your leaders and/or the thesis of your study. Discuss your questions with your team members.

If you look back over the last six months, who are the four or five people with whom you discussed matters important to you? Just list their first names or initials.

Consider the people with whom you spend your free time. Over the last six months, who are the three people you have been with most often for informal social activities such as going out to lunch, dinner, drinks, films, visiting one another's homes, and so on?

How did you build key relationships? What kind of information and resources are shared with different contacts and why? What role does reputation, third parties, or private norms play in enforcing non-written agreements? How important is exclusivity to trust? Does he or she form many/few ties? How do you balance social and economic relationships? To what extent do you take advantage of corporate culture as a coordinating mechanism?

Who are the four or five people who have contributed most to your professional growth and where are they in the network? Who do you see as your single, most important contact for your continued success and where are they in your network? At the other extreme, what people working at your company have made it the most difficult for you to carry out your job responsibilities? (Consider drawing a network diagram during the interview in which you identify contacts and the types of exchanges and relationships the manager uses to cultivate them).

Consider describing the efficiency and the effectiveness of the network with reference to structural holes, social capital, or embedded ties. What is the strongest entrepreneurial opportunity (i.e., where can the most value be added)? Cite examples from your discussions or observations to illustrate your view of the manager's entrepreneurial skill. Be careful not to jump to quick conclusions that blind you to alternative interpretations.

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