Written by
Ron Carucci

Published
28 Jun 2017

Connection and influence is key to culture

28 Jun 2017 • by Ron Carucci

As you likely already know, the term references the collection of French resistance movements that fought against the Nazi German occupation of France during World War II. “Résistance” cells engaged in guerrilla warfare activities, published underground newspapers, provided first-hand intelligence information, and maintained escape networks that helped Allied soldiers and airmen trapped behind enemy lines. The men and women of the underground were from all economic and political backgrounds, including émigrés, conservative Roman Catholics and priests, liberals, anarchists, and communists (Wikipedia, 2016). What’s interesting about the metaphor is that it depicts a collection of vastly diverse people who would normally have no reason to interact, all executing high-risk activities for a collective greater good.

All organizations have some form of “underground,” and, like the French Resistance, these unlikely alliances come together to advance the organization in ways that the “formal organization” is believed unable to. The major limitation of these networks is their narrow, almost religious, exclusivity, which prevents all members of the organisation from participating in and benefitting from them.

Going underground

All organizations have some form of “underground,” and, like the French Resistance, these unlikely alliances come together to advance the organization in ways that the “formal organization” is believed unable to. The major limitation of these networks is their narrow, almost religious, exclusivity, which prevents all members of the organisation from participating in and benefitting from them.

In the case of the retail organisation mentioned earlier, most of the leaders appointed from the outside floundered, sometimes for years, because their access to the “underground “was limited, based primarily on tenure and “fit” with existing members.

The SVP of Retail Operations at this particular organization was on the hook for significant growth. To be successful, she recognised the need to import a lot of new talent. She asked us to help her “break the back of the underground” so that new leaders would have a level playing field on which to contribute and succeed. Our response surprised her. “Why on earth would you want to destroy such an amazing asset?  Why not exploit it instead?” Our point: “the underground” was hugely valuable in getting things done, and trying to dismantle such a powerful structure was futile anyway. Why not harness it by trying to broaden access to it instead? It would require drafting several of its informal leaders and enlisting them to use their informal power to do what they had always done – advance the cause of the organization. This time that meant enabling a large influx of new leaders to learn the ways of “the underground” quickly. In essence, we weren’t going to dismantle “the underground”, we were going to multiply it.

Taking full advantage of informal networks provides executives with the opportunity to have broad-reaching and deeply meaningful connections with bosses, peers, and direct reports over the life of their careers. This becomes especially important as executives move through the organization and those relationships must constantly be redefined. Someone who was once a peer may re-appear as a direct report or a boss in later assignments. Many organisations foster such networks by sponsoring corporate sports teams or affinity groups such as Young Professionals or Latin Americans. Well chartered cross-functional task forces comprised of leaders from across the organisation and assembled for specific initiatives often result in the formation of deep relationships that transcend the life of the initiative. One executive we’ve worked with for many years says of his work leading a Sales transformation effort more than a decade ago, “The people I did that with are still some of the closest friends I have today. We speak regularly, exchange career advice, and call each other on birthdays, even though most of us don’t work at that company anymore.”

Don’t discourage your organisation’s “underground”; feature it. When it takes on unhealthy forms, like “good ol’ boys networks,” “the class of 99,” “the breakfast club” (all names of organizational networks we’ve actually seen), where exclusivity inhibits broad participation, address that. Work to open access to the network for others, while still honoring the relationships formed within the network itself. Resist the temptation to formalize them with charters or leadership “councils,” for you will certainly kill them. Celebrate their organic nature, their genuine capacity to shape great relationships and to morph and adapt with the organization. If you want executives who form 360° connections as a regular part of how they lead, cultivate the power of the underground and encourage widespread participation in it.