Networks increasingly surround us, socially and in business – in fact, they are becoming the more dominant context than organizations and hierarchies. They better describe how the world functions in social, political and commercial terms as well. Below, please find some provocative thoughts on how I think the leadership practices should adapt to the new networked reality. The recommendations follow a community lifecycle logic; however, these are NOT linear – they all happen concurrently.
The first mantra for leaders is not to confuse formal organizational settings and hierarchies with networks. It is like mixing up the park paths with the way people actually walk
Having either a mental or physical map is a good idea in any case. If you are new to an organization, this should be key part of onboarding. If you are well embedded, the challenge is different: you might be blinded by your own knowledge. You might rely on historic relationships as good old trusted buddies, but this is seldom the complete truth. Asking your trusted network to suggest new insights or even better, reaching out to non-insiders, may well offer more value than staying on the old path
Once you do not assume people connect the way they are designed to, then how to map the real patterns? A good, straightforward diagnostic is to ask, ”If I am in doubt, who do I consult with?” The expected answer is the classical „”that depends…”
The good news is that we can restrict it to leadership-relevant aspects. If we agree that essential leadership consists of two paths – selecting your relevant focuses and aligning people with it – things looks simpler. So the two questions to ask are, ”Whom do you consult with on selecting your relevant causes?” and, ”Whom do you interact with to get your messages across to your would-be followers?”
The answer to the former should be a very diverse group. I know business leaders who deliberately maintain broad networks of politicians, scientists, arts and sports people, or even ordinary people like the grocer and a couple of millennials. Here, diversity that sends a balanced set of sensors out in the world and perceives changes and tests interpretations is essential.
The second network is trickier. One might be tempted to go for the numbers: the more people I reach, the better. But this is false. If your network consists of the gossip centers of gravity, you may reach a large number of not very credible messages. You need both the reach but also the trusted status. So a better question to ask is, ”Who are the people others trust?” There is not an easy way to figure this out other than listening to feedback, formal and informal. Or use Organizational Network Analytics(ONA) if you really have a large population to influence.
A network is a living organism. Being part of that, cannot be passive – “use it or lose it”. The critical thing here is reciprocity: if you tend to use network strengths when you need them and only then, they will fade away. Keep nurturing your networks, especially when you do not want anything directly. Offer help before they ask. Your time investment shows how much you value them. My best practice is to keep in touch with relevant people when they are struggling. Best friends come through in tough times, and others remember those gestures of solidarity and help. Wish them well and help in times of crisis, failure or critique.
In less extraordinary times, regular and meaningful knowledge transfer is advisable. Take time to share your thoughts, but above all, the dilemmas and questions, too. This is not an intelligence contest, trying to outsmart your network. You gain more strength and respect by sharing even failures or dilemmas than being perceived as a successful propagandist.
Another best practice is maintaining your network by growing it – see the next point.
Developing a network is a way to maintain it, a true value for its members to increase their relevant connectivity. Offering introductions and indemnifying possibly valuable links are essential techniques. This is why consultants introduce key clients to each other. This is why conference breaks provide the most value. Direct introductions or just opportunities to make it happen via social events, online communities or other ways are great. But there is one even greater way to give value. This is not one-to-one but many-to-many. If you can, identify critical network points that can connect communities and have multiple effects. For that you need two qualities: being deeply embedded in your own network and being open enough to create new contacts, sometimes off the beaten track. Connect doctors with gamers, military officers with poets, gardeners and scientists. I can almost guarantee sparks of innovation that translate into leadership insights.
The last one is controversial. Death and Birth. Reincarnation. Actually, can a network die? Can you order people not to know each other? I would tend to think networks can be weakened by not using them and one can cause this by withdrawing resources – time, in particular. And you may do this spontaneously, for instance when you leave a job, geography or profession. But is this the right thing to do? I would suggest a less intense but still active “slow burner” style instead which involves redefining your interests, rather than dropping them. The best practice is if you could connect your legacy networks with new emerging ones, hence adding value to both.
It is easier to build a new network on the foundations of an old one – much the way historic buildings often occupy the place of a previous landmark. I am not saying building brand new networks is not possible or not part of the new leadership qualities. On the contrary, finding a new cause that is appealing to many meaningful contributors is a great skill. This is more art than science, I think, but not fully.
Impressionist artists have had taken their inspiration from looking at nature from a new perspective. If you think back on point one, on better awareness and visualization, this might be your inspiration to spot missing networks and start building them.