Phil Willburn – Networked Leadership

Network Challenges for Senior-Level Leaders

This is the last part of my series on network challenges for leaders at different stages in their career. In my previous two posts I discussed the network challenges of high-potential and mid-level leaders. Senior leaders face a very different challenge at their level than the others and have serious implications if they do not address their network challenge (like crashing the company).

 The need to protect their reputation through a safety-net of trusted relationships

Senior leaders live in a world where they are scrutinized by their peers, the organization, and the market. Their actions are weighed and measured and have big implications across the organization. They need to protect their reputation. For this reason, they develop a core of trusted relationships that give the senior leader flexibility in her actions. Trusted relationships are understanding – they provide forgiveness of mistakes, they keep your best interests in mind, and are a good testing ground for new ideas. Trusted relationships provide the senior leader a safety-net for acting inconsistent at time and having not-so-smart ideas. They save face.

Network Challenge: Operating from a closed network

Senior leader networks become very insular: They are closed. These networks fight the external world from coming in, lack transparency, and block the flow of information. This happens because senior leaders focus too much of their time on a few trusted relationships to help manage and protect their own reputation. They do not want to be seen as insecure, inconsistent, or indecisive, and their safety net is a buffer from the external world.

Working with senior leaders on my personal network diagnostic tool (I will describe this in my upcoming post), I find that about 80% of them have insular networks. They tell me they have no time to develop new relationships. I kindly tell them that it is because they spend too much time with only a few trusted individuals. In my experience, senior leaders have fears about developing new relationships that might push them out of their comfort zone, and they often lack the knowledge of who and how they should develop these new relationships.

Network Solution: Connect with your latent network

One of the best and easiest solutions for a senior leader is to tap into their latent network – the mass of previous relationships that have been accumulating over the leader’s career.  Senior leaders have spent decades accumulating relationships. Obviously they were successful with working with a variety of different people or they wouldn’t have gotten to where they are today. Senior leaders’ latent networks are ripe with new perspectives, ideas, information that can bring new ideas to them. The best part about individuals in a latent network is that senior leaders already know the. Depending on how much time has gone by, they may know them less than they once did, but that is part of the point of reconnecting with them.

A senior leader’s latent network has been very busy since he has been involved, it has changed and the people in it have changed. They have new roles and new perspectives. For a senior leader, re-starting an old relationship will often provide pleasant surprises, especially if they are still within the same organization because it is likely the relationship will have a very different perspective of the organization than the senior leader does.

If not attended to: Will become disconnected and irrelevant

If a senior leaders remain insular, they will make decisions for the organization that are no longer relevant because they don’t have the latest information. Their safety-net has buffered out dissenting opinions. The people that surround the senior leader no longer challenge them but become dependent on him, so the senior leader sees the world only from people who depend on him. Groupthink starts to take place, and while the senior leader thinks the world is in line with his ideas, in reality ,the senior executive team and the organization view him as an island disconnected from reality.

I have seen this happen and the serious consequences that come from insularity in a senior leaders network. In one case, this senior leader’s entire business unit (half a billion dollars in revenue) was dismantled. Her insular network led her to believe that a number of bad acquisitions (her friends of friends companies) was good for the organization. Eventually they failed, and so did her career.

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