Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Leading in the 21st Century: Networking

“Networking” has become a common term among individuals—especially entrepreneurs—who are attempting to connect with those who can help them achieve their business plan and those who are potential customers. Networking is also an essential skill for leaders of 21st century organizations.

Peter Senge has explained the importance of internal networkers or community builders in developing learning organizations. He describes such people as “the seed carriers of the new culture, who can move freely about the organization to find those who are predisposed to bring about change, help out in organizational experiments and aid in the diffusion of new learnings.”

If you have a 20th century perspective on leadership, this characteristic of leadership will really get under your skin. If you are part of an organization or judicatory, you may not see the value of encouraging the “gadfly” employee who flits from desk to desk, cubicle to cubicle, or office to office looking over other employees’ shoulders. If you are a church leader, you may be suspicious of the staff member or lay person cruising the hall with a cup of coffee in his or her hand, stopping to talk with whoever walks by, and peeking into Sunday School classrooms. Either of the above descriptions may not be the most effective way to share information within your organization or church, but there must be a mechanism for this to happen. Sharing knowledge is essential to the 21st century organization.

Many people call this the sharing of “best practices”—here’s what works for us. The person who shares a best practice is not guaranteeing that if you adopt this practice in your setting that you will have the same level of success. He or she is simply reporting, “This is how we solved our problem. Maybe it will help you to solve yours.”

In some way, networking needs to be institutionalized within the organization or church. Encourage both planned and unplanned gatherings of persons representing different parts of your organization. Both organizations and churches might do better if everyone had the opportunity to stop by a common coffee or snack area before retreating to their individual cubicles or classrooms. Finding ways to encourage people from different parts of the organization to cross paths—such as a common entry or fellowship area—might be helpful. Meetings of leaders could focus more on sharing from the participants rather than dissemination of information from the upper echelons.

There are good things happening in every community—church, judicatory, or business. We just need to find ways to “scatter the seeds.”

One word of warning: This will only work if you are willing to take some risks. Notice that Senge used the words “change” and “experiment” above. A 21st century leader who adopts this approach must be willing to put up with a little messiness and occasional flat out chaos. When you encourage people to share their creativity, you may be surprised, amazed, and unsettled. That’s one of the risks of 21st century leadership.

Personal Note: The information shared in this blog and the four previous ones on leadership for the 21st century came out of a paper I wrote at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary four years ago. The skills of pathfinding, aligning, and empowering were suggested in an article by Stephen Covey in The Leader of the Future (Jossey-Bass Publishers). As I mentioned above, Peter Senge’s description of the networking function was presented in another article in the same book. For more on coaching, see Robert Logan and Sherilyn Carlton, Coaching 101.

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