Leaders must leverage networks

The power of social networks is not a new subject. In fact, we’ve been talking about social networks (offline social networks, at least), for centuries.

Consider, for example, this ancient proverb, which underscores how attributes or behaviors can transfer from one to another: “Live with one who prays, and you will pray. Live with one who sings, and you will sing.” Or perhaps you prefer Aesop, whose fable of “The Belly and the Members” demonstrates how a single member of a network can have a disproportionate amount of influence on the whole network. And then, there’s his fable of “The Father and his Quarreling Sons,” which emphasizes the ever-popular sentiment, “united we are strong, divided we are weak”  (or, the more modern alternative: “united we stand, divided we fall”).

With the advent of social media, the public consciousness seemed to marvel at this novel phenomenon. Gradually, as online networks proliferated, we began to realize that they mirrored what has been happening offline for ages (e.g., it wasn’t the “what” that was new, but the “how.”). Online networks amplified and diversified how we create and sustain our connections with others. These digital manifestations of our physical networks served to deepen our awareness of the power of networks. And we still have much to learn.

In this vein, Nicholas Christakis’ TED Talk on “The hidden influence of social networks” provides some compelling insights and provocations. The purpose of his undertaking was to “[understand] human networks…how they form and operate” to better understand human activities and experiences. In this pursuit, he and his collaborators found that the stronger the connection between two people, the greater the probability certain attributes might be transferred from one to another. The initial subject of his study was obesity, but the same principles held for subsequent studies which focused on emotion.

This has important implications for today’s leaders. If a physical condition, such as obesity, can pass through a distributed social network as readily as emotions, like happiness and sadness, how could we possibly ignore the power of networks to advance–or derail–our cause?

As the modern work environment grows increasingly complex and distributed, the simple fact is that individuals rely on networks to navigate their organization and execute their work more than before. CEB (formerly, Corporate Executive Board), nods to this fact in a recent white paper entitled, “Rise of the Network Leader.” They posit that today’s work environment requires a new leadership style, which they dub “network leadership.” They pose some interesting questions and observations, but the data they provide is particularly intriguing. In studying the performance of more than 3,000 leaders, they found that 74% of leaders indicate the number of stakeholders they interact with has increased (duh, but good to have the data) and that 70% of leaders lack the flexibility to effectively create and lead social networks. That last bit is key: it suggests a widespread performance gap in which leaders are unable to access and leverage one of the most valuable resources in their organization — the people!

As leaders, we seek to accomplish our goals with and through others. As the ways in which we accomplish the “with” and “through” evolve, we must also.

A network-savvy leader knows that networks ought to be cultivated, fostered, and leveraged in an intentional way. Christakis observes that “the pattern of connections among people confers upon people different properties. It is the ties between people which makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.” That the architecture of our ties has such importance cannot be overstated and seems to mirror an observation David Allen once made regarding our personal leadership style, when he wrote, “How we are who we are can make a transformational difference in our jobs, our careers, and our lives; and that’s something that can be learned and practiced-not simply something we innately possess.”

So, how do we enhance our ability to lead (and leverage) networks? I admire the work of Dave Logan and his collaborators, who pioneered the concept of “tribal leadership” (Ted Talk | Wikipedia | Website). But really, if there’s one call to action from all of this, its to begin thinking about and engaging with our networks in an intentional manner.

At the conclusion of his talk, with the tenor of a benediction, Christakis emphasizes his belief that “if we realize how valuable social networks are, we’d spend a lot more time nourishing them and sustaining them.” For leaders who wish to be successful in today’s work environment, this is absolutely true.

Time for Strategy

Are your decisions based more on reflex or reflection? This may be one key to becoming a more strategic leader, according to a post by Liane Davey at the HBR blog.

Reflecting on how you go about your work, you may find that you’re too busy to allow for much intentional reflection on decisions. Davey provokes insight (and a little guilt), when she knowingly asks, “What percentage of your workweek is spent in meetings? How much of the time left over is a mad dash to respond to emails, make phone calls, and do some actual work?”

A moment’s reflection on Davey’s question likely delivers you to the same conclusion she makes: “Possibilities are unlimited; time, money, and resources are not.” Consequently, these three variables are our most significant leverage points. And while not all of us may have much oversight over money and resources (in our personal or professional lives, it may seem), time is a universal variable — and a universal choice.

Achieving an efficacious online brand community

Online brand communities are popular vehicles for gathering consumer intelligence (e.g., pre- and post-purchase information) and fostering brand affiliation (e.g., generating buzz, increasing loyalty). However, effectively (and efficaciously) managing these communities remains something of a mystical art akin to voodoo, relying as much on luck and happenstance as on strategy.

An MIT study of such communities sought to identify some causality with respect to what actions community managers can take to produce positive outcomes. The study concluded that online communities require constant attention if they are to increase a brand’s sales.

The mere existence of such a community does not “strengthen relationships and drive sales. Rather, it is the exchange of high-quality information on these sites that drives a strong customer response.” Community members who “obtained higher levels of relevant, frequent, lengthy, and timely information” experienced a stronger relationship with the corresponding brand. No single one of those dimensions of communication was sufficient on its own–”only members who received higher levels of all four…ultimately made purchases from additional categories of products and…bought more products from the same category.”

Key ingredients to motivate employees

Key ingredients to motivate employees, per Dan Pink: autonomy, mastery, and purpose [Source: Huffington Post]

Female board members and the bottom line

As of April 2012, 15% of Fortune 500 boards have one or more female members. Organizations with boards which are characterized by 30% gender diversity “outperform those with no women by a wide margin measured through multiple metrics” [Source: SmartBlog on Leadership].

This poses a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum: are organizations more efficacious because of their gender-diverse boards or are more efficacious organizations more likely to be more equitable in their recruitment of board members?

Brand-based online communities

A burgeoning number of brands are establishing consumer-centric online communities. A January 2012 University of Michigan study suggested that consumers spend, on average, 19% more after having joined such a brand-based online community.

“After controlling for several factors, the authors found that the quantity and quality of friendly relationships with other customers was key. Customers who had many friendly relationships, or who befriended more important or prominent customers, were likely to spend more on the firm’s products. Those who displayed more products on their profile page also tended to rack up purchases.”

Source: Strategy + Business

 

Psychopathy + High-Potential = CEO

In The Wisdom of Psychopaths, research psychologist Kevin Dutton highlights some psychopathic qualities which are frequently billed as essential to corporate leadership, e.g.:

  • Persuasiveness
  • Beguiling charm
  • Focus under pressure

In stressful situations, most people become agitated. Psychopaths, however, tend to calm during “moments of heightened tension.” This emotional self-control may be one of the enviable qualities we should strive to emulate.

This comparison prompts us to consider: is psychopathy a good thing in business leadership? Should we strive to emulate its characteristic qualities or re-evaluate our rubric for a successful business leader?

From, Do psychopaths make good CEOs?

 

1 billion women

“Almost 1 billion women will enter the global economy for the first time in the coming decade…fundamentally shifting how the world works.”

From, “How one billion women will shake the business world.”

 

Baldly going where no leader has gone before…

This contradicts my experience, but nonetheless intrigued (and inspired hope):

“Men with shaved heads are perceived to be more masculine, dominant and, in some cases, to have greater leadership potential than those with longer locks or with thinning hair, according to a recent study out of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.”

From, “Study shows baldness can be a business advantage.”

The Icarus Paradox

A Kellogg School of Management study underscores that the more flattery we receive, the more we allow our self-impressions to be inflated. According to this study, this holds true for CEOs and constitutes “the Icarus Paradox:”

  • “’What we are saying,’” Stern explains, ‘is that with CEO status, the greater the status, the more flattery and opinion conformity will be directed towards the CEO. And the more flattery and opinion conformity directed at the CEO, the greater the CEO’s self-enhancement.’”
  • “The results showed that CEOs subject to flattery were more likely to believe themselves to be better leaders and more adept at strategy. Firm performance data, however, did not bear that out. Firms with flattered CEOs were less likely to change strategy when company performance dipped.”
  • Stern and his colleagues call this the “Icarus Paradox.” “The high levels of flattery and opinion conformity that high-status CEOs receive can foster self-enhancing cognitions that lead them to become over-confident in their strategic decisions and in their ability to correct performance problems with the current strategy,” the authors write.

From, “Flattery’s Dark Side – Why you may want to consider how much you compliment.”