This week I’m going to talk about the value of a leaders’ social network. Last week I talked about how The SMART Workplace needs to recruit and retain leaders. Leaders come with all kinds of valuable skills, experience, education, temperament and vision. But they also bring their social network with them.
And that is even more valuable today than yesterday because in the words of John Chambers, CEO of Cisco, “we compete against market transitions, not competitors. Product transitions used to take five or seven years: now they take one or two.”1 You can’t sense these transitions if you are focused within your own organization and functional silos. A leader’s social network is the glue that keeps them connected to the larger world where these transitions start.
“Successful leaders have a nose for opportunity and a knack for knowing whom
to tap to get things done. These qualities depend on a set of strategic networking
skills that nonleaders rarely possess.” Ibarra and Hunter, Harvard Business Review
A Tale of Two Companies
Let me use a personal story to illustrate this point about leader’s social networks. Two companies that I worked for were both over 100 years old and tops in their respective market sectors. Company A went out of its way to support network development through coaching, financial support to attend conferences, and participate in peer user groups.
Company B was biased in the opposite direction. When I requested financial support to attend outside events, explicitly for networking, I got the “we’ve been in business for 100 years without mingling with outsiders. Why should we change now?”
Company A picked up on early changes in a market transition driven by technology and was able to quickly pivot its product development efforts to eventually become a new sector market leader. Company B, on the other hand, got blindsided by a technology shift that made its cash cow product line obsolete almost overnight. It was sold off within 5 years for its physical market presence with the CEO bragging how he managed to put the company out of business.
True story. I know that just because networking support and business success are correlated in time doesn’t mean one caused the other. However, in the case of Company A, listening to signals from outside, using those to drive new product development and market testing appeared to be the differentiator.
What is a leader’s social network? It’s not just your golf buddies or old college roommates. Sure, that can be part of it, but we’re talking about that larger group of contacts, acquaintances and friends a leader has. And it is intentional, which I will explain in a bit.
We have all heard the saying, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” As it turns out, you can measure a social network. The most common metrics are its size and its density (that is who is connected to whom). There is a whole body of research on this topic, but suffice to say that if you wanted to know how well leaders leverage their social network – there are valid and reliable metrics that do that.
What does a Social Network do?
A well managed social network brings a leader three things:
- Search time for novel information: decreased time increases value. A well functioning network lets a leader find new information more quickly. Either through direct contact or monitoring intergroup communications. Your network, if structured properly, can give you advanced notice of events or situations that may impact you.
- Breadth of searchable space: increased space reduces uncertainty. A wider net can be cast because the effort to collect information, analyze data and reach conclusions are spread across a group of people. You could see it as having open access to a large library collection and not just one or two books.
- Trust in the source: history, reputation and value (increased veracity). Over time leader can assess the probability that the information they are receiving from the network is true and correct.
What does it get you? What the leader ends up with is a tremendous amount of pre-digested data and analysis. Which, if used properly, can yield great trend spotting, competitive intelligence and future shifts in customer attitudes and preferences.
How do you make it work?
I’ve talked about why social networks are important for leaders, just what they really are and what they can do in a business context. But how do you exactly make all this work? There are four major tactics you can use to effectively manage your social network. Great leaders do all of these things quite consciously.
- Align with your personal purpose. First and foremost, if your social network is not supporting you in living out your purpose, it is of marginal use. It needs to be pulling you into the future (sometimes kicking and screaming.) That’s the contact who says, “I know you are interested in X so I think you need to take a look at this.”
- Actively manage. This requires effort. This means setting aside time to contact people and doing it on a regular basis. A good rule of thumb is having deliberate contact on a monthly basis, ideally with face to face meetings several times a year. If you had a personal board of directors, how frequently would you want them talking with you?
- Seek diversity. Members of the network should bring different subject matter expertise, pre-dispositions (i.e., caution vs. risk taking), and demographic perspectives to you. And there should always be one naysayer in the network who can be counted on to be a restraint.
- Upgrade. Effective leaders’ social networks are not static. They need to change over time as leaders mature and evolve themselves. Members will need to be swapped out and replaced for any number of reasons. The biggest reason is you don’t want your network turning into group think. That’s what causes Board of Directors to become ineffective over time. Keep it flowing and fresh.
When you are bringing a leader into your organization, or develop one from within, remember to include their social network in the development plan. Some people are naturals at this skill, others are not. There are many ways to do develop this skill. The quickest way is to have an effective mentor, people can design, develop and manage their networks. The business gets a highly leveraged asset that will be a key to navigating market transitions.
- Your social network is a critical part of the SMART Workplace. If you want to be a SMART Workplace, reach out to us.
- Start by going to The SMART Workplace and sign up to join our SMART community.
- Check out our knowledge resources while you’re on our site.
- And join us for open and transparent Happy Hour Chats, facilitated online Luncheon Discussions and learning webinars
Charlie Grantham, Futurist and Author; The SMART Workplace
So how’s your own Net-Working?