The power of being a Network Leader

Jun 4, 2018
Blog - The power of being a Network Leader

One of the key topics in my course on LinkedIn Learning, Creating a Culture of Change, is ‘Network Leadership’. The concept and practice have been around for a few years now, and people are beginning to realize what a powerful practice it actually is. In fact, I would say it is a required capability for a leader in almost any organization today and in the future. It’s so important that I devote and entire chapter to it in my course.

Leading and managing in the 21st century requires a new set of skills. Previously, leaders were often specialists in one domain or another, and a few were renaissance leaders with a breadth of skills. Organizations are becoming more complex everyday, the rate at which change happens is dizzying; no one leader in an organization of any size or relative complexity can keep up with it – even those with a broad array of skills. This is where Network Leaders shine!

Network Leaders know that they don’t have to know it all or even keep up with all of the latest news and developments; instead they know that they can stay ahead of the curve and access the information they need – when they need it – by building a network of experts whom they can count on to feed them accurate information about a variety of topics in a timely manner. That is how they stay ahead and lead effectively in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain/Unpredictable, Complex, Ambiguous) world.

There are two main criteria required in order to become an effective Network Leader:

1.    Building a reliable expert network takes a considerable investment of time and energy to find the right people, and build sustainable, mutually beneficial relationships, in other words – it requires giving and ‘paying it forward’, in order to be able to ask for help later.

2.    It also requires a leader to be willing to ask for help, i.e., show vulnerability – something that traditional leadership models have frowned upon.

If you’re willing, you can accomplish these by wisely investing your time and energy, and start enjoying the benefits of being a Network Leader.

The first step is to think about your social network – what you want from it and what you can contribute to it. Once you have decided what kind of social network you would like to build in order to be a successful leader – you need to develop a strategy of how you want to build it, i.e., what are the qualities and experiences of the people you want to have in it. You can look for people with similar interests and experiences as thought partners to spar with, or you can look for people who will be complementary to you to fill in the gaps, or even better – both.

Personally, I have a very diverse network with both kinds of people at various levels and in a variety of functions, who are geographically distributed.

A social network is an organic entity in that it is full of living beings with thoughts, feelings and busy lives. Like anything organic it needs to be nurtured in order to thrive. I generally, spend two to three hours a week supporting my professional social network by referring people for jobs, making useful connections, answering questions, acknowledging personal and professional milestones, and reading and responding to posts and articles. I also receive a tremendous amount of support from the people in my networks, for which I am very grateful.

One thing to note, is that one does not have to be especially extraverted to be an effective networker or connector. Susan Cain, author of QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, offers a shining example of that – here is a very poignant article that she wrote a few years ago on the subject. 

As stated above, today’s leaders need to be vulnerable in order to be effective – humility is a quality that is great admired in leaders who achieve excellent business results – they don’t need to have all of the answers, they do need to be willing to ask for help – Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, is a great example of what this looks like. Empathy is the complementary quality of vulnerability, and he personifies both.

So, be willing to go to your network and ask for help, and trust that they will give you the support you need…as you have done for them before!

On an organizational level, many companies have not been able to fully comprehend and engage the power of natural network leaders, because quite often they don’t look like traditional leaders and aren’t necessarily in leadership roles. Many times, these connectors are adding value by providing valuable connections and building bridges between key stakeholders and groups that would otherwise not be connected in a timely manner.

John Boudreau, of USC’s Marshall School of Business, and Rob Cross, of Babson College, have done significant work in the area of “organizational network analysis” (ONA). There research using ONA shows that people who are connectors, roughly “3-5% of people in a typical organization network, account for 20-35% of the value-adding collaborations.” Connectors are the people who make useful introductions to people whose collaboration can add significant value, i.e., “the sum of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.”

Additionally, Boudreau and Cross note that, “ONA reveals not just the number and frequency of connections, but also which people create energy and a sense of purpose.” Organizations can effectively drive innovation and engagement if they can identify and enable these connectors to lead.

In conclusion, if you want to be an effective leader at any level in the organization of any scale or complexity, you need to be a Network Leader. It takes and investment of your time and energy, and I think you’ll find that the return far exceeds the investment for you and your company!