Leading Networks for Change
In 1950, Danish chief engineer Hildaur Neilsen teamed up at Zephyr American with U.S. businessman Arnold Neustadter to invent the path-breaking networking tool called the Rolodex. Little could this transatlantic duo have predicted the momentum of inventions about to exponentially increase our networking capacity — so much so that we are currently said to live in the networked age.
One advantage for leaders in this period of rapid technological advance is the opportunity to tap into new research about leadership networks and the conditions that make these networks most empowering and effective. New tech tools allow us to visualize our networks and to consider needed adjustments. Stepping back and taking the time to assess and rebalance our leadership networks is therefore a valuable strategic investment. This is even more essential as we are also in a period of rapid demographic change, when it is ever more advantageous to build social capital beyond our traditional circles, expanding our access to information and increasing our capacity to innovate.
What steps can transatlantic leaders take to meet this growing potential to network, leveraging advances in research and technology?
1. Research demonstrates that decentralized and self-organizing networks out-perform and bring greater satisfaction than hierarchical networks. We advise “the starfish model,” through which we rely on peer relationships and independent circles of activity linked by shared values and sparked by individuals and ideas that serve as catalysts throughout the system. This contrasts with the hierarchical approach to networking and is the model we at GMF are deploying to activate our own network. We can take the time to consider how to make the activity of our networks less hierarchical and more decentralized, to maximize innovation.
2. Creative ideas, essential leads and innovations often come from outside one’s primary network, meaning that it is necessary to cultivate both strong and weak links in a successful networking strategy. Strong links in networking terminology are those with whom we have the most intensive contact, while weak links are those with whom we interact more rarely. Information flows into and out of our networks via bridges that connect our core network to those we consider more peripheral. Innovation is often sparked by serendipitous interactions with people we meet less frequently; in this way we access the richness and innovation of their core networks in addition to our own. For example, most leads on job opportunities do not come from the people we interact with most, but from people we network with rarely. This means that we must “move beyond the comfort zone” and develop bridges to other networks, increasing our social capital. These bridges further allow us to enrich our understanding of the world and of the specific issues we work to solve.
3. Useful research is underway about global action networks, and how such multi-stakeholder networks spanning countries and sectors can bring about lasting systemic change by creating collective understanding and discovering unexpected solutions. When we take the time to visualize our networks, we are able to identify strong and weak nodes, meaning where we have intensive interaction and where interaction is rarer. As we work across borders, we can bridge to a broader range of networks, ensuring that our stakeholders are drawn from across sectors, in order to create collective understanding of our causes.
As we put these three strategies in place, we can also develop tools to measure the effectiveness of our networks for change. This means we assess how active and dynamic the different independent circles of activity are in our networks, how effectively they are innovating, and how new ideas and inspiration are traveling through the system.
Therefore in activating the GMF Alumni Network, we are providing action grants to power alumni driven ideas in teams that alumni themselves form across sectors and borders. This is also why the GMF network is more powerful: It is within an ecosystem of all the other networks to which alumni are connected, widening the circle of impact and exchange of ideas.
In Paris from September 27–28, we will benefit from two days together at the Inclusive Leadership Summit for Emerging Leaders, exploring together in depth the ways we can strengthen our networks and create pathways for diverse talent into leadership roles, in this way making all of us more effective leaders. If this is a topic of passion for you, please sign up here.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.