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Networks: A Leader’s Secret Weapon

No one’s claiming it “takes a village” to run an organization, but leaders are finding that their formal and informal networks can make a critical difference in getting their complex jobs done.

To be certain, the concept of “collaboration” is already getting a lot of press in the business world, especially as it pertains to getting people to work together for the purpose of innovation. But leaders collaborate for reasons that go well beyond innovation. To get their jobs done, they have to harness the talents and knowledge of others, both inside and outside the organization, and they often rely on networks to accomplish this.

Networks serve multiple purposes for leaders. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, INSEAD (France) professors Herminia Ibarra and Mark Hunter (2007) write that leaders should create and tap into three related networks—operational networks, personal networks, and strategic networks. Ibarra and Hunter say operational networks, which are made up of work colleagues and external constituents such as customers and suppliers, create depth for leaders. Personal networks, which are composed of “kindred spirits” such as those met at professional gatherings, create breadth and expose leaders to a professional perspective beyond their immediate banks of knowledge. And strategic networks include relationships with people outside a leader’s immediate sphere of control. The challenge is to leverage these relationships in order to attain strategic goals. “Strategic networkers,” write Ibarra and Hunter, “use indirect influence, convincing one person in the network to get someone else, who is not in the network, to take a needed action.” While these three networks may be distinct from one another, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive, say the professors.

Leaders should build their networks with a sense of purpose, and one purpose is to expand their frames of reference. Executive advisor Ram Charan (2006) suggests that leaders develop networks by attending confabs, meeting with their peers on a regular basis, and seeking out a diverse cadre of individuals with a similar passion for alternate viewpoints. Being able to tap into the wisdom and opinions of new minds helps leaders to become better thinkers and decision makers. It develops their ability to separate relevant from irrelevant points, to pose new hypotheses, and to rethink old assumptions. Another proponent of using networks to broaden thinking is Dr. Anna Tavis (2007), a consultant who presented Global Talent Management: The Third Generation at HRI/i4cp’s 35th annual Issue Management Conference. Dr. Tavis advises members of leader-level networks to “connect on your similarity and [to] profit from your diversity.”

Leaders of smaller organizations must be particularly diligent about seeking out peer groups who face similar challenges. In fact, “Industry Peer Networks,” or IPNs, are rising in popularity as a way for leaders of smaller regional U.S. firms to discuss common problems and solutions with their noncompeting peers, especially in the retail and service sectors, according to experts at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Sloan’s Stoyan V. Sgourev and Ezra W. Zuckerman (2006) say that the high-trust environment of an IPN helps member firms avoid two common problems: “myopia” and “inertia.” Myopia occurs when leaders overemphasize local and familiar goings-on and ignore happenings that are more global and unfamiliar. Inertia occurs when leaders get too comfortable and overconfident with the current state of affairs and tend to follow paths that lend themselves to more of the same. Therefore, these peer networks serve to broaden leaders’ frame of reference and challenge them to try new solutions.

Within their own companies too, leaders need to build a network that ensures the organization has access to a wide spectrum of strengths. Leaders rely on their “talent radar” to identify colleagues with specific proficiencies that compensate for or complement their own competency profile. Rob Cross and Robert J. Thomas (2006), writing in Leadership Excellence, advise leaders to “invest in relationships that extend their expertise.”

In building their internal networks, leaders must also identify key people who can facilitate getting things done. Often, these people are key not because of their position in the firm but by virtue of their contacts and persona. Douglas B. Reeves (2006), writing in Educational Leadership, calls these employees “superhubs,” those rare individuals with the ability to connect with and influence others. The best way to locate these “islands of excellence,” advises Reeves, is to simply “ask people who they go to for help.” Cross and Thomas estimate that employees’ networks account for 90% of the information that influences them to take action. Therefore, a key factor in a leader’s success is the ability to identify influential players and mobilize the entire talent network toward the accomplishment of organizational goals.

To do this well, leaders will need to strengthen certain competencies. A global study produced by American Management Association and the Human Resource Institute (2005) found that “communication skills” was one of the top competencies leaders needed in order to function effectively, both at the time of the survey and 10 years into the future. It may be the finer nuances of those communication skills—networking, collaboration, the ability to influence, and negotiation, for example—that become especially important in the years ahead. In fact, respondents to HRI’s Leadership Development Survey (2005) ranked negotiating skills among the most critical leadership development needs.

This trend toward leader-level networks is replacing the view of a leader as some singular icon holding dominion over the organization with a view of the leader as a resource/talent facilitator. “The complexity of business organizations and the global economy mean that top leaders are simply more reliant on others than ever before,” according to Leading into the Future, the AMA/HRI study (2005). A solid network of colleagues—with a diverse set of talents—can help leaders tackle those complexities.

About the Author(s)

Donna J. Bear  is the Leadership Knowledge Center Manager for the Institute for Corporate Productivity. She has a B.S. degree in business administration and an M.S. degree in management and is certified as a senior professional in human resources. Her previous experience as an HR generalist/consultant spans the PEO, corporate, and not-for-profit sectors