Social Networks : Personal Networks and Leadership Development
Rob Cross is an assistant professor of management at the University of Virginia where he is director of The Network Roundtable, a consortium of 20-30 organizations sponsoring research on network applications to critical management issues. His research focuses on how relationships and informal networks in organizations can be analyzed and improved to promote competitive advantage, organizational flexibility, innovation, customer retention and profitability, leadership effectiveness, talent management and quality of work life.
Rob has worked directly with more than 70 strategically important networks across a wide range of well-known organizations in consulting, pharmaceuticals, software, electronics and computer manufacturers, consumer products, financial services, petroleum, heavy equipment manufacturing, chemicals, and government. Ideas emerging from his research have resulted in two books, four book chapters and 23 articles, several of which have won awards. In addition to top scholarly outlets, his work has been published in Harvard Business Review, Sloan Management Review, California Management Review, Academy of Management Executive and Organizational Dynamics. His most recent book, The Hidden Power of Social Networks (Harvard Business School Press), has been featured in venues such as The Financial Times, Time Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, CIO, Inc and Fast Company. Rob holds a PhD from Boston University and a BS and MBA from the University of Virginia. He speaks, consultants and conducts executive education both domestically and internationally.
A powerful way to improve executive effectiveness or promote connectivity in an organization is to work through each employee's personal network. Research has shown that people in more diverse, entrepreneurial networks tend to be more successful. Providing executives and employees with a means of planning their personal network development is an effective way to promote connectivity. Such feedback can help employees identify biases in their networks and understand why they might want to invest more in some relationships and less in others. For example, are people getting information only from a certain hierarchical level? Alternatively, are they leveraging only those colleagues who are physically close or in the same functional unit, or are they actively reaching out to different people to benefit from diverse perspectives?
There are many ways to assess the composition of your network and its impact on performance, learning and innovation. For example, sociologists commonly look at the effect of certain similarities between people-such as age, race, education, and gender-on clustering in networks. But these demographics do not always illustrate the subtle means by which one's contacts affect learning. In many coaching sessions with managers at all levels in organizations, we have found at least six dimensions of personal networks to be consistently important.
- Relative Hierarchical Position. Networks can be biased by an over-reliance on people who occupy certain hierarchical positions. Managing relationships with those higher than, at the same level, and lower than you is a hallmark of a well-rounded organizational network. In general, balance is important, and people's networks seem to fall out of balance when they don't maintain enough relationships overall, when they focus too heavily on those higher in the organization, or when they miss the technical expertise that can often be gained from those at lower levels.
- Relative Organizational Position. People tend to pay attention to, interact with, and learn from those in their home department. However, as one moves up in the hierarchy, bridging relationships (to other departments and organizations) become increasingly important to ensure effective learning and decision-making. Unfortunately, when people need bridging relationships the most, they often have the least time to spend building them.
- Physical Proximity. The likelihood of collaborating with someone decreases the farther you are from that person. Distances of only a few feet, let alone floors in a building or even buildings themselves, often prove to be critical fragmentation points in networks. With executives, this problem often results in their not understanding the needs of those in different locations, such as field sites.
- Structured Interactions. Look at almost any manager's Day-Timer: It is common to see back-to-back meetings from 7 A.M. to 7 P.M., day after day. The critical question from a learning perspective is whether the people you are seeking as your primary information conduits are the best sources for the task-relevant information you need, or whether they are simply built into your schedule.
- Time Invested in Maintaining Relationships. Do you invest enough time in maintaining relationships that are important to you? People often spend the most time and effort maintaining relationships that need little investment or that are antagonistic and offer little benefit. People have finite time and energy to put into relationships. Managing these investments wisely can yield substantial performance and learning benefits.
- Length of Time Known. Is there diversity in your network in terms of the length of time that you have known people? If you have known too many people for too long, you are probably hearing things you already know or, more insidious, knowingly or unknowingly using other people to get your own opinions confirmed. It is good to see new people cycling into (and out of) a person's network as his or her job changes. At the same time, if you have too many new people in your network, it may indicate a lack of sounding boards or confidants with whom you can discuss personal or inflammatory issues.
Combining these dimensions to assess your personal network can give you insight about where to focus your relationship building. For example, consider an executive whom listed fifteen people in his personal network. Having recently been promoted to this position, he found that most of the people he relied on at this point were new to him. Although he was pleased with this network from an informational perspective, he was little less comfortable with the extent to which he could trust these people to discuss and brainstorm tough organizational issues. One implication of this assessment was a need to rekindle relationships with two past mentors who could be distant advisers.
Additional biases existed. For example, he was concerned about his excessive reliance on people lower in the hierarchy and on those in his own group. He had set out to build relationships with his employees in order to be an effective leader, but it was clear to him that he had not established sufficient relationships with those higher in the organization. As a result, he often missed opportunities to leverage resources or knowledge that existed elsewhere in the organization, and he was less able to gain buy-in on initiatives he wanted to pursue. He was also surprised to note his heavy reliance on those physically near him. The network analysis showed him that two practices-relying too heavily on spontaneity and failing to systematically reach out to those in different locations-were biasing the information he had to work from. To fix this imbalance, he began to structure time into his calendar for people he might not necessarily bump into in the halls or cafeteria.
Ó Copyright Robert Cross 2005