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Networks

5 Leadership Skills in the Age of Networks

networked
Informal networks of connection and control have always existed, but often only vaguely understood within tribal pecking orders, neat corporate hierarchies, and military chains of command. For networks to emerge as a new paradigm it needed a language of its own. A language that has been provided by the internet and social media. The question is do we need to change how we lead within this new worldview? In my opinion, the answer is yes.

Effective collective action will always require some to lead and others to follow. Direction, however subtle, gentle or hidden is always necessary. Formal, positional leadership will remain important, but in a virtual, networked world leaders will increasingly be asked to lead without positional authority and without being able to constantly monitor their direct reports.

Unlike conventional top-down leadership, leadership in a networked world is more about enabling than directing. It is more about influence than control; more indirect than direct; but still obliging leaders to create an environment based on both collaboration and individual autonomy.

It is leadership understood first and foremost as a social process that creates direction, alignment and commitment without recourse to the traditional mantra of positional authority: “because I say so.” It is more a case of ‘power with’ as opposed to ‘power over’.

In her recent book, The Chess-Board and The Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World, Anne-Marie Slaughter identifies five skills of a network leader: clarification, curation, connection, cultivation and catalysis.

  1. Clarify – Leadership begins with helping people make sense of their situation and the clarification of goals. Clarification starts when someone steps forward and makes suggestions about how to fix or achieve something. Clarification continues through continually refining what those goals mean in practice through facilitated discussion and working through disagreements.
  2. Curate – Curation is the careful selection of whom to connect to whom: people, institutions and resources. This is a specifically network skill and starts with understanding or mapping your community or organisation, recognising who has what and who needs what in terms of knowledge, skills and resources.
  3. Connect – Having identified the assets in your community or organisation, good connectors are synergy spotters, accomplished at connecting people to each other, cross fertilising and spreading knowledge and connections to help things grow toward a common purpose. It should not be confused with networking. This is about connecting people, skills, knowledge and resources for the benefit of those you connect, not for selfish ends. And once connected, a great connector continually checks in with the members of their network to keep connections alive.
  4. Cultivate – As Stanley McChrystal observed in Team of Teams, leading is like gardening: “Leadership is like gardening, because gardeners can’t do anything. They can’t make plants grow or flowers bloom, they can only create the conditions in which everything flourishes and achieves its best.” The network leader, therefore, focuses on trust building (deepening relationships through repeated interactions), delegation and empowerment, troubleshooting, conflict resolution, setting and enforcing boundaries, sharing knowledge, gathering resources, and holding stakeholders accountable.
  5. Catalyse – a leader must provide energy, not drain it. A leader is the spark, igniting sustaining and rekindling activity in a network. This often requires uncommon powers of persuasion, which can be enhanced by being open to persuasion yourself. Model effective dialogue and a capacity to change your mind, on the basis that to change others you must be prepared to change yourself.

None of these skills are new. Napoleon recognised the importance of clarification when he spoke of defining reality and giving hope. But a new paradigm encourages us and ultimately requires us to look at the world in a different way. Like turning a kaleidoscope the pattern and the colours have been rearranged and we must adapt what we know to this new worldview, discarding what no longer fits, adjusting what still has relevance and, if need be, creating the rest as we go.

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Three Ways to Unlock the Power of Informal Networks in Your Team

NetworkDespite what we know about networks and networking organisations still tend to be understood as simple, formal hierarchies, represented by an organisational chart or organogram. It is time to challenge this convenient fiction, which at best facilitates standard modes of production, handles easily anticipated problems, and illustrates linear reporting relationships. Crucially, it hides a far more subtle and informal network of relationships that comes into its own when the unexpected happens – which seems to be far more frequently these days!

Effective informal networks facilitate the exchange of accurate information around who has what, who can do what and who needs what. They also facilitate the exchange of ideas that can feed innovation. By visualising and analysing informal social networks managers can bring out the strengths in their networks; realign their formal structure to complement the informal; and rewire faulty networks to work with company goals. The three key networks you should consider are communication, advice and trust.

Communication networks provide information about news or events at work. Examination of communication networks can help diagnose inefficiency and low productivity, on the basis that workers are either spending too much time and energy working the rumour mill, instead of actually working. Or they hardly communicate at all, leading to errors, alienation, stress and poor morale.

Advice networks are about solving task related problems and obtaining technical information to perform one’s duties. Understanding advice networks can uncover routine conflicts, recurring disagreements over how things should be done, or the assumptions one should be operating by. Advice networks diagnose such disagreements by showing when there are contradictory sources of expertise, unused sources, or no sources at all.

Trust networks are associated with the sharing of confidential or ‘political’ information and the provision of support for one’s ideas and proposals. Analysing trust networks is particularly useful for diagnosing non-routine problems, such as failing change efforts. Non-routine situations necessarily involve uncertainty and the need to generate new ideas about what to do, how to do them and generating support for those ideas. The trust network can identify good candidates for bringing the organisation together to make change happen.

At PSA we develop 2D pictures of team and organisational networks using network visualisation software, by asking each team member to identify who they communicate with, seek advice from and trust on the basis of one simple question for each network. It is simple but very powerful. However, even without the software, it is still possible to do a preliminary analysis of your team’s informal networks by asking a few insightful questions.

In terms of communication you need to identify who the connectors are in your team or organisation? The extraverts who like to talk and gossip, those team members who know a lot of people and like to share what they know. Or simply those in a position to know what’s going on, like Personal Assistants, those on the front desk, or just those who spend a lot of time in the tea room! If you wanted everyone in your team to know something, who would you tell?

When considering advice you are generally looking for expert operators who have the skills, knowledge and experience that other people need. First identify what skills and knowledge your team needs to operate efficiently and effectively. Then, for each skill or aptitude identify the novices, the masters and the coaches (those who can teach what they know). You are then in a position to share all that knowledge and all those skills around the team, through group training or individual coaching. If you identify any critical skills or knowledge that reside in just one person you may want to consider an urgent download to someone else too.

Trust is the vaguest concept of the three, but it is also the most powerful, being the bedrock of high performing teams. It is also emotive, so we sometimes use the term support instead and always emphasise that this is not about a person being trustworthy or not, but a simple recognition that at work we know and get along with some people better than others, and this affects how efficiently and effectively we work together. So, in the first place, identify the key relationships in your team, why are they close? Consider how you might build better relationships among the rest of the team, do they simply need to get to know each other better. But a word of warning – beware cliques, closely knit groups who exclude others.

Whatever you discover, the time has come to make explicit what we know implicitly about how work gets done in teams and organisations. We need internal depth to our networking as well as external breadth.

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