How to Use Your Network to Become a Power Connector

January 20, 2016, 3:58 PM UTC
Group of people standing by windows of conference room, socializing during coffee break
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“Sometimes you don’t choose when to act; it chooses you.”

For Cotential CEO Erica Dhawan, collaboration is how we get big things done. One of her greatest moments of collaboration was speaking at Davos four years ago while conducting research at Harvard on the changing nature of work and millennials. Feedback from corporate leaders who heard her speak helped launch her business, a global consultancy that drives business results through sustained collaboration. Dhawan is also the co-author with Saj-nicole Joni of Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence.

How do you recognize a good idea?

Dhawan: Great ideas can come from anywhere. Sometimes our greatest ideas come from where we least expect them. And more important than the idea is the person. I focus on not just someone’s expertise but also on their potential.

Before I started Cotential, I was a research fellow at Harvard University where I advised organizations on the changing nature of work, including how to attract, retain, and engage millennials. Through conversations with corporate executives, I realized that the future of the workplace centered on ingraining collaborative behaviors in organizations. The idea of my business crystalized when I first spoke at Davos in 2012 on Leadership Models Across Generations. After Davos, corporate leaders asked me how to actively foster intergenerational collaboration to better deliver on their business strategy. Cotential started out of that request from CEOs. Sometimes others see a good idea and the potential in you to make it happen.

How do you build support for your ideas?

Dhawan: To get big things done in the modern world, you need to be collaborative. To drive collaboration, you need to understand how to best maximize the potential of your connections or best describes as leveraging your, “connectional intelligence.”

First, I build support for my ideas by building coalitions with people who share common interests but work in different disciplines and environments. I do not focus on the usual suspects or those I have worked with in the past.

Second, I figure out how my knowledge can be used by others. A great example of this is surfer and engineer Benjamin Thompson who developed Smart Phin, a wireless sensor that a surfer can attach to his or her surfboard fin to measure the salinity, acidity, and temperature of the water. This information also helps researchers and scientists understand the impact of climate change.

Third, I have learned that you must be willing to be your authentic self. Lilly Singh and Michelle Phan are two of my favorite YouTube personalities who have created brands around their true selves and ultimately partnered with global companies.

How do you manage fear and doubt?

Dhawan: There were times when I realized I was speaking about innovation and collaboration but that in meetings with corporate leaders we weren’t experiencing it. Although initially nervous about recommending it, I asked those in the room to do something with me that I love to get creative thinking going: Bollywood dancing. It worked. The equalizing nature of movements dissolved silos and hierarchies. Bollywood dance allowed me to show corporate executives that shared experiences can inspire and create workforce connections that can help diverse individuals collaborate and move the organization forward. Sometimes the most creative types of connections help us to move past fear and doubt.

Also, managing fear is about believing in yourself, especially when others doubt you. We have to lean in when it seems like nobody else wants us to and the goal we’re going after feels too big.

When is the right time to act?

Dhawan: Sometimes you need to think before you act or act in a small way to understand what the next right step is. Sometimes you don’t have a choice about when to act; you just need to be in a present state of mind and allow a decision to come to you. And don’t fight it. Indecision is worse than a bad decision. There are times when you have to wait to learn more, but don’t spend too much time planning.

When Nancy Lublin was the CEO of Do Something, a non-profit to motivate young people to take action around social changes, she started receiving text messages from a young woman with a heartbreaking cry for help. She did not know what to do. She had no experience responding to a crisis. She chose to start a new organization, Crisis Text Line, which provides free crisis intervention via SMS message. This non-profit collects data on the most important mental health issues in real time, allowing journalists and researchers to leverage this information to reshape policy and prepare schools and police to better handle crisis. Sometimes you don’t choose when to act; it chooses you.

What can people and organizations do to leverage the power of connections?

Dhawan: We need to focus on the quality of connections, not quantity, and connectional intelligence speaks to the quality of connections. And you need to understand what type of connector you are. Are you a Thinker who connects and generates ideas? An Enabler who creates forces and teams? Or a Connection Executor who understands how to mobilize people and resources effectively? Once you know what type of connector you are, then you can partner with other types of connectors to get things done.

Olympia Snowe, former U.S. Senator from Maine, has does a great job leveraging the power of connections. She has built a name for herself creating bipartisanship and influencing close votes because of her ability to build coalitions and develop shared interests.

We can use the intelligence of connections to improve diversity in the workforce. Robert Putnam, a Public Policy Professor at Harvard, tells us there are two kinds of social capital: bonding capital and bridging capital. Bonding capital brings together people from similar backgrounds and potentially shared ideas. To bring in new mindsets and drive innovation, we need to focus on the latter, bridging capital, to engage with people around the world. Davos is a massive forum for bridging capital and creativity that will help us move the diversity conversation forward.

How do entrepreneurs contribute to organizational culture and the future of work for women?

Dhawan: There is a massive wave of female entrepreneurs right now, and they are influencing the future of work. Freelance entrepreneurship and mothers working virtually are changing the future of work for everyone.

Knowing that talent is key, companies are learning to work with people in a way they have never done before and using alliances and matching services to engage entrepreneurs. I predict the future of work will look like the film industry; individuals will come together to engage in discrete work and then disperse to move on to another project. By 2025, 75% of the world’s workforce will be millennials. By 2020, 40% of the U.S. workforce will be freelancers. Change isn’t in the future; the change is here.

Coalitions like the Young Entrepreneurship Council, Quora, and Doximity and matching services like PowerToFly and Skillbridge are defining the workplace of the future. These communities allow individuals to share a culture and still have their own business.

Anything else?

Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, said, “In the new world, it is not about the big fish which eats the small fish, it’s the fast fish which eats the slow fish.” With things moving so quickly now, we can leverage new forms of collaboration to ensure that voices are heard and new ways of thinking are developed; from that, great outcomes can result.

Avery Blank is a woman’s advocate, business and career strategist, and policy attorney. She works with individuals and organizations that have demonstrated a commitment to the advancement of women.