The pyramid and its variations

Nonetheless, some companies act as if none of this existed. They still hold on to rigid management hierarchies and pyramids in which time-consuming reports slowly make their way to the top, while instructions gradually trickle down from one management level to the next.

Many companies have undergone well-intended attempts to introduce more flexible management models such as the Matrix Organization. Unsuccessfully so. Instead of becoming more agile and responsive to rapidly changing (customer) needs, organizations often end up with structures and processes that are even more complicated and protracted. Introducing a bottom-up approach in addition to the top-down pyramid also doesn’t produce the desired effects. Why? Because it’s a linear approach as well.

More agility and self-organization

The more complex our environment, our problems and our tasks become, the greater the need for networking. Agile approaches and self-organization methods are currently in vogue and offer new hope. I have described the joys and sorrows of this phenomenon in my article called Organized and disciplined: successful business agility in practice. Agility and self-organization already work well at the team level if everything is properly set up and embedded. Working across teams requires the respective leaders to effectively manage interdependencies and create the appropriate framework. This calls for a broader understanding of leadership along with a greater awareness of acting within networks.

Organizational boundaries are opening up

But it doesn’t stop there. Most organizations have been opening up their organizational boundaries. Entire value chains have been outsourced. Companies are relying on external expertise and (temporary) service providers instead of permanently employed staff. Leaders are therefore no longer limited to a specific reporting line within their organization. They need to incorporate their entire network of service providers.

Not to forget about the customer. User-centric approaches demand a great deal of foresight, even from managers who are not in sales. Stakeholders, associates, influencers ... the list is long. Who, how, with whom and why? That's how network leadership could be summarized It’s high time for managers to recognize the significance of networks and start to utilize them. In the old days, it may have sufficed to climb the career ladder step by step according to hierarchical principles and expertise levels. Today, leaders need to have the ability to professionally and strategically connect with other people and groups.


7 must-knows about networks and network leadership

What exactly are networks and how does network leadership actually work? Here is a summary of what you need to know.

1. What’s a network?

A network is a group of individuals or organizations that are connected by meaningful relationships. This may be online, offline or both.

 Networks are relevant if they

  • have many participants,
  • provide an opportunity for self-organization,
  • are driven by new technologies, and
  • share a collaborative mindset and behavior.

2. The Working Wikily approach

Social media platforms like Twitter and Wikipedia are based on a collaboration and network mindset. This has given rise to the term Working Wikily. It was first used in the non-profit sector. There, social innovations have been driven by openness, transparency, decentralized decisions and distributed action for years.

3. Context awareness

Network leadership has always coexisted with organizational (hierarchical) leadership. But it has been marginal at best. In a more complex world, the focus is increasingly shifting to networks and thus to a different kind of leadership.

First and foremost, this requires context awareness. What is happening in our environment? Are there clear cause-effect relationships or is everything in motion? When everything is moving, a network approach simply works better because it doesn’t reduce issues to linear processes. Instead, it quickly connects different perspectives, resources and competencies.

Network leadership thus begins with the recognition that a complex environment necessitates different approaches.

4. Traditional vs. network leadership

So, what exactly is the difference between the two leadership approaches?

Deloitte’s Monitor Institute provides the following characteristics:

Traditional leadership:

  • position and authority
  • individual approach
  • control
  • transactional, linear
  • action-oriented

Network leadership:

  • role and behavior
  • collective approach
  • facilitation and guidance
  • relational, connected
  • process-oriented

In the following table, I have outlined the distinctions in more detail. It is important to note that in practice, the transition tends to be fluid. Oftentimes, both approaches can be found within a company in various patchwork-like forms.

Traditional leaders

Network leaders

Use organizational hierarchies to exert control and drive results.

Use their network and personal vision to lead and influence others.

Predominantly connect with fellow leaders and individuals in positions of power to achieve fixed predetermined outcomes.

Involve all levels in the organization and networks across organizational boundaries to dynamically learn, identify and capitalize on opportunities.

Build professional relationships purely for purpose.

Maintain network relationships on an ongoing basis.

Establish trust primarily through titles and positions in the organizational hierarchy.

Inspire trust through transparency, valued ideas, communication and proactive engagement.

Control the flow of information to maintain power.

Rely on real conversations and shared knowledge to create mutual outcomes.

Transform the organization to align with specific leadership and work styles.

Adapt to the respective networking style and local digital communities.

Communicate with the organization without expecting questions or participation.

Use the network to disseminate information, then collectively derive improvements from it.

Seek to control how work is done.

Let the network do the work.

Draw on existing knowledge and inside information.

Learn from and share with the entire network.


5. Leadership tasks in the network approach

Let’s look at the different leadership tasks within the network approach. These are not necessarily limited to one leader but may well be shared. In fact, some organizations have even replaced their leaders with key players. This is intended to consciously differentiate from the conventional concept of leadership and the attributes associated with it.

Leadership tasks within the network can be:

  • bringing together different people and groups
  • involving network participants
  • inspiring joint work and action
  • facilitating connections and bridging differences
  • creating trust
  • encouraging self-organization
  • genuinely participating
  • leveraging assistive technologies
  • creating and protecting a network space

6. Don’t dread networks!

Are networks unmanageable jungles that, once let loose, will develop uncontrollably? Will it be impossible for leaders to intervene, much like Goethe described it in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice? The answer is clearly no. If you keep an open mind, are aware of the interrelationships and dynamics in network structures and use adequate tools, you will be able to successfully transition to a network leadership style.

There is actually a well-structured approach that helps you to better identify and shape networks. It was developed by the ONA Organization Network Analysis. This is a trend that is likely to gain momentum.

7. Beneficial networks start with the right questions

Networks should benefit all parties involved. Successful network leadership therefore starts with the right questions. Questions that provide guidance and encourage reflection.

  1. What do your existing networks look like? How are they correlated? Creating a visual representation may be helpful.
  2. What is the purpose of each network?
  3. Which roles do you play in them? What’s the purpose of your role(s)?
  4. Where are you creating the biggest benefit?
  5. Where are you causing impediments and why? Obtaining feedback from your networks can be very valuable.
  6. Which relevant persons and groups have you not considered yet?
  7. Who could be a useful multiplier?
  8. Which of your strengths and competencies are beneficial to network leadership?
  9. Which of your attitudes and practices may be a hindrance?
  10. Based on that, which three specific steps can you take to become a better network leader?

The time is right. Begin now and enjoy your journey to successful network leadership! :)

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