Leading change through networking

Written by
Changeboard Team

01 Mar 2011

01 Mar 2011 • by Changeboard Team

Staff accountability chart

When starting to work with an unfamiliar organisation, I was always taught to ask to see their staff accountability chart.

The first test, of course, is whether they have one at all. If they do, it reveals to me (as maybe a balance sheet does to others) how teams are formed in the organisation, how transparently it works, how its leaders are held accountable, where decisions are made and where the organisation prioritises its energies.

Where do people gather

These days, I have a supplementary question: I also ask to go where people gather, both physically and online. I want to see which issues are on their agendas; and, just as importantly, who stands out (or rather, up).

The people in this category are likely to be the leaders who are determined to deal with the messy problems, the “in-between” problems, the problems that don’t fit neatly into the structure - or the silos - of the organisation (and, of course, won't be solved there either).

The ones that call for leaders who understand networks and collaboration: marketing and finance deciding to combine their thinking, for example, or middle managers in competing divisions deciding that enough is enough and that they can achieve more by working together than against each other.

Where do the leaders hang out and network?

When a new city says they want to start Common Purpose (http://www.commonpurpose.org/ ), I ask to meet the formal decision makers to understand their agendas, structures and priorities. Then I go to these places – real or online – where people gather, talk, share and form unusual alliances.

That's where the networked leaders are, the people who are prepared to go beyond the boundaries of their organisations or communities. In Glasgow recently, I met the head of a Fire and Rescue service. He had led his team to work with local voluntary sector leaders because, as he said: "they can tell us where next year's fires will be". The impact had been dramatic and surprising for leaders who had seldom, if ever, looked beyond their own service.

Networks connect people

It is strange to use the word 'network' in such a positive way. I am 52. For my generation, it has always been a word to distrust. It always seemed to have the word 'closed' in front of it. Networks were what kept you out; some were secret; all seemed exclusive - and disempowering if you weren't in them.

Younger people use the word in a completely different way. For them, networks are the very mechanisms that include people in society and organisations. Networks connect people with common interests, so that their voices can be heard: and sometimes even counterbalance the voices within the structure.

Networks are what you need to make things happen these days - especially if you are dealing with difficult, messy, complex problems.

Leading through collaboration

Leaders who stick to structures find it hard to adapt to this networked world. Some simply ignore the awkward 'in-between' problems; some put up with them; and some try to change the structure in order to address them. They don't like the untidiness. Indeed, they dislike the threat to the structure that such problems represent. It's an all-too familiar refrain: "I'm in finance, and that's it!" or "What do the voluntary sector know about fires?" They don't want to have to lead through collaboration. For them, it's time-consuming, unsatisfactory, frustrating and fundamentally unnecessary if you get the structure right.

I couldn't disagree more. Leading through collaboration may be hard, drawn out and complex but, done well, it is also deeply satisfying, because underlying problems are dealt with and solutions gain enough buy-in from around the organisation to work across it.

In networked organisations you are free to lead

This new networked world calls for leaders to go even further in their thinking. In the structured world, leaders were appointed. They were given a role, a place in the structure, a title, a business card, a team, a budget, an office, a position and, with all these things, came legitimacy. It meant that, within their bit of the structure, they were authorised to operate. And they knew where else to go within the structure for decisions to be made that went beyond their remit.

In the structured world, better not reach beyond your remit yourself because, if you do, you risk being branded an interferer, an interloper, a busybody. This world creates (and rewards) leaders who only get going once they are appointed; and, until then, they wait. The ambitious might hassle and make themselves as visible as possible so that they get appointed sooner rather than later, but they are still waiting for someone else to hand it to them.

In a networked organisation or society, there are no roles to be appointed to - so it is likely to be a long wait. There are no people to appoint you either. So leaders have to legitimise themselves: through their behaviour, insight, commitment and actions.

Give yourself permission to lead

This is why I think some leaders who have invested time and effort in understanding the networked world, and the skills required, remain fundamentally ill-equipped for it. If, deep in yourself, you have to be given permission to lead, if you need the legitimacy of being chosen by others (elected, appointed or even inherited), then you simply won't get off the ground in a networked society or organisation.

Eventually, you will have to go into the square - to the in-between places, crossing all sorts of boundaries - of your own accord, and legitimise yourself. Because no one else will.