In 2004, I landed what was at the time my dream job working for my dream organization, Idealist.org. My position focused on making connections—connections between college students doing social justice work, between these students and organizations working on similar issues, and between all of these different groups and the information that would make their work more effective.
The students with whom I worked were smart and dynamic. And while I was good at quickly getting up to speed and figuring out efficient ways of supporting their current needs, a few months into the job, I realized I wanted to do more; I wanted to help prepare them for what came next, both personally and in terms of the issue areas they were working on.
Right around this time, my boss was in the process of starting a chapter of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN), which provides training and network-building opportunities for young people in the social sector. I signed on to help, and immediately found myself among people who were in the same sector but who came from many different fields and perspectives. The people I met through the network pushed me to consider new ideas and approaches – essentially they gave me a consistent, inviting space to think about and understand what could be coming next for society and for our sector.
What binds us in the social sector is that, regardless of our organizational mission, we want to be impactful and relevant. Most of us realize that while each of us has our own ideas and strengths, figuring out what it takes to achieve greatest impact and relevance involves climbing over our organizational walls. It’s why we join associations and grab coffee to pick a colleague’s brain. It’s why 74 percent of respondents in YNPN’s 2013 member survey cited “access to a network” as the benefit they value most about their membership.
However, even professionals who understand the importance of networking as a tool for increasing effectiveness seem to miss the fact that they must take networking a step further to offer true leadership around their mission.
In a 2007 Harvard Business Review article, INSEAD professors Herminia Ibarra and Mark Hunter called out the common lack of focus on “strategic networking.” The study points to three basic forms of networking—operational, personal, and strategic—each with its specific purpose (see chart in the linked article.). The study showed that even leaders with strong networks tend to focus their efforts on the first two areas (operational and personal networks), allowing them to complete current tasks more efficiently or develop professionally as individuals. They invest (just as I once did) in learning who at their organization can help them get something up on the website quickly or advise them on managing a staff member. But the study makes it clear that to go beyond effectively maintaining the status quo, leaders must focus as much energy—if not more—on strategic networking.
So if your organization and staff are generally on board with the value of networking, what more can you do to encourage new managers and other emerging leaders to focus on strategic networking?
Mix it up. Go beyond associations. Sure, development managers should join the Association for Fundraising Professionals, and volunteer managers should join the Association of Volunteer Managers. But if you’re looking to identify future priorities, you have to spend as much time as possible with the community you serve and with people who are thinking disruptively on purpose.
How to connect with the latter is less straightforward. In New York and other cities, for example, groups such as House of Genius bring together collaborators and problem-solvers from diverse backgrounds. But in general, any space where people are gathered around an idea or an issue, rather than a field or a role, will open leaders up to future possibilities.
Name it. Track it. Incorporate it. Devoting space at a staff retreat to name and describe what “strategic networking” looks like for your organization, and then tracking its progress in individual reviews and at staff meetings, will elevate the priority placed on this form of networking. The act of defining strategic networking as a group will help bring it out of the realm of jargon and into a space that is more meaningful for your organization. Returning to these goals at staff meetings or as part of one-on-one reviews will help keep it top-of-mind as a priority and foster cohesion around the practice.
Invest time and money in it. One of the major barriers to networking is that leaders see it as an add-on—something that takes them away from their primary responsibilities. One clear way that organizations can signal to new managers and emerging leaders that strategic networking is actually an integral part of their responsibilities is by allocating a percentage of staff time to these activities and adding a line item in the budget. Many networking opportunities (conferences, mixers, and meetups) charge fees for participation or occur during the workday. Dedicating even a small amount of staff time or organizational resources can help reduce these barriers and incorporate the concept of strategic networking more fully into staff culture.
Advancing our organizational missions requires that emerging leaders perform their jobs well and think strategically. Organizations can and should play a role in helping leaders build networks that support both efforts.