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Truth 5 It's Important to Know Who Knows What: Build Your Circle of Information

Once upon a time, if you needed information, you usually knew where to go for it. If no one in your company could help, a paid professional would. Information was in the hands of a few experts, such as lawyers, librarians, and financial advisors, with clear titles and knowledge fields. They offered ready-made solutions for most information needs.

In today's "information age," information is available from multiple sources. The few trusted experts have become a smorgasbord of options. There is more specialization. One legal expert is no longer enough for every legal question, and one big consultancy firm can't help with all organizational matters. With less emphasis on degrees and titles, and more on real-life experience, it has become harder to quickly assess people's knowledge. And knowledge is accessible in new ways—via the Internet, e-mail, or phone—making the location of advisors less important. Getting the right information despite (or even because of) the range of information available can be confusing and time-consuming.

That's where a good "circle of information" comes in: a diverse group of people, contacts gathered over time, who know your thinking and who are there when you need them. You can rely on them to give it to you straight, whether you need to find a new employee, learn how to do business with a new culture, or leverage your brand. You can also learn from your circle by working through ideas, plans, and problems with them.

It's important to have information sources both inside and outside your organization. When you need to keep things low-key, an outsider may be a better bet, since insiders can unintentionally reveal things to others. You should also ensure that you have a few trusted "thinking partners"—not just family and friends likely to agree with you, but people who will challenge you and ask you questions. They don't need to be experts as long as they understand you and your business.

Thus, you have your inner circle and an outer or working circle. The former consists of a few people you can wholly trust, who get to hear your innermost thoughts. Members need to show loyalty while having no fear of questioning you. Your working circle is wider, made up of all the people, inside and outside your company, including experts, who you can call on for information or help with knotty issues. Its membership fluctuates; you bring in the right people for the situation you're in.

You build your circle of information by asking around your network for recommendations, checking people's backgrounds and experience using the Internet, and then bringing useful folks on board. Test them either by involving them in a small project or by making use of the initial free access that often comes with a referral to ask some questions of a professional over the phone. Once you find good people, professionals or not, nurture these relationships by using them regularly, honoring their guidance, and keeping them informed. You may want to use them when you aren't desperate for help so that they take your call when you are. However, beware of using the same people all the time, or you may find yourself depending on someone too much or thinking purely from one perspective.

You need to vet your circle of information all the time to confirm that people are still right for you. Ask yourself whether members respond to you in a timely manner and make an effort to keep you in the know. Do they offer personalized responses that show they have taken the time to understand your situation? Do others still respect their thinking? Last but not least, are they committed to keeping confidential information confidential and loyal enough not to talk about you behind your back? If an expert talks about you on the ski slopes of Switzerland, the information may find its way to your competitor in New York. We live in a small world with an active Internet!

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