As learning businesses, it’s safe to say that most are striving to move the needle in the field, profession, or industry they serve through large-scale impact. However, it’s reasonable to assume that a single organization won’t be as effective in achieving that as multiple organizations in partnership. Applying the network leadership model offers a way to structure collaborations aimed at collective impact, rather than solely on organizational success.
This week on the Leading Learning podcast Celisa interviews Jane Wei-Skillern,a speaker, author, and Senior Fellow at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley who is a leading voice on the topic of network leadership. They discuss how this model differs from other approaches to collective impact, the four principles behind it, and how applying the model can help organizations work more efficiently while focusing on the larger purpose of why they exist.
Listen to the Show
Read the Show Notes
[00:18] – A preview of what will be covered in this episode where Celisa interviews network leadership expert, Jane Wei-Skillern.
Also, a special thank you to Nancy Bacon, Associate Director at Washington Nonprofits, a podcast listener who wrote us to let us know about Jane’s work around network leadership. She shared that she appreciates network leaders as an alternative approach to collective impact (at topic discussed in a previous podcast episode with Seth Kahan) in part because she thinks it factors in “an understanding of human nature around power and privilege.”
Note that we always welcome and appreciate recommendations for topics or interviewees. If you have suggestions, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment on any episode at the bottom of the page.
[03:03] – Introduction to Jane and some additional background information about herself and work.
[04:33] – Would you explain what network leadership is and how the model came to be? Jane shares that network leadership is an approach of a way of working and a mindset of how one leads. It’s really less about the individual or organization and much more about engaging and mobilizing resources and partners outside of their initial/immediate control. She explains how the model came to be when she realized that maybe the growth of organizations, which included scaling out/rolling out more programs, wasn’t necessarily the path to greatest impact. When doing case studies for her MBA, a few stood out that really focused on the mission and leveraged resources, not only in the organization, but also outside, in order to move forward on addressing a situation or problem, or create social value. This led Jane to start to explore the network approach where it’s less about the organization as a vehicle for change and more about the network in the larger field as a vehicle for change.
[09:43 -] How does the network leadership model differ from other approaches to collective impact? Jane explains how traditionally there’s been a tendency to think about collaboration as driven from the top down. So even the collective impact approach (which she thinks very highly of) can be enhanced by the network leadership approach. The collective impact approach starts more from the strategy, structure, and systems that you need to have in place in order to drive large-scale collaboration. This is often dependent upon funders to put resources in place to push this approach forward and oftentimes this involves creating new collaborations. In contrast, with a network leadership approach, Jane says she turns everything on its head and starts with less structure, strategy, and systems. Instead, you start with the value, relationships, and culture that need to be in place in order to have a collaborative function. She looks more at very bottoms-up, organic approaches to collaboration, which is more solution-driven (rather than collaboration for collaboration sake). Jane adds the other piece to this and that all the networks she studied really built on existing relationships in the community. Because of the organic development of this, it’s much more dynamic and not something you can create a rigid plan for. Celisa notes that this is an example of tapping into the intrinsic motivation of the people involved so it’s about what they value rather than extrinsic motivation—check out our related episode on the topic of motivation and learning.
Sponsor: Blue Sky eLearn
[15:17] – If you’re looking for a partner for your learning business, we suggest you check out our sponsor for this quarter.
Blue Sky eLearn is the creator of the Path Learning Management System, an award-winning cloud-based learning solution that allows organizations to easily deliver, track, and monetize valuable education and event content online. Blue Sky also provides webinar and webcast services, helping you maximize your content and create deeper engagement with your audience across the world.
- Focus on mission before organization.
- Manage through trust, not control.
- Promote others, not yourself.
- Build constellations, not stars.
[23:29] – Network leadership is decentralized and distributed and thereby arguably more secure, more trustworthy than centralized authority.Do you think our current situation, our current society and realities, makes network leadership particularly appropriate or appealing in today’ world?Jane says yes because there’s a certain sustainability component built into networks because you are building capacity, leadership, and commitment throughout the network, rather than investing in one central hub. As far as what’s happening in the world today, she agrees there is tremendous hunger and opportunity for this way of leading to really take hold. Jane acknowledges it’s still more an exception rather than the rule of how organizations are governed or led and there’s still a tendency to focus on a top-down, organization/ego-centric, charismatic leadership approach. But this network leadership approach is really about bringing us back to the basics—people getting along with people. If anything, what’s happened in the world has gotten it too far away from the fundamental things that really drive and motivate people and communities.
[26:56] – Jane emphasizes she did not invent this leadership concept, rather she learned it by studying people who have done it very well. So it’s not something that people need to learn from her, in fact most people in the world who are working in this way have been doing this because it was the most common sense, rational way to get to the most effective, efficient, and sustainable impact. And this isn’t a real technically difficult, challenging thing to do if we’re focused on mission impact or some larger goal. Jane adds that while social media and technology can be very valuable in facilitating our ability to connect with people at the same time, there’s a feeling of isolation that can emerge. The fact that we so easily and readily turn to our technology as a way to pass time, means we are losing that ability to connect with people in meaningful ways that actually matter to a healthy community.
[30:35] – What do you see as the major opportunities for and threats to network leadership today? Jane admits there are challenges to doing this work and that the four principles of network leadership (as outlined above), are actually generally disincentivized and not rewarded at all in our institutions. People typically look up to powerful, big organizations that are attracted to self-promoting, powerful people who have often lacked humility. We focus on control mechanisms and most organizations emphasize those more than anything else. And we see organizations that are trying to build themselves up in their own right and that almost becomes the mission in it of itself rather than what is the larger purpose of why we exist. As far as threats, Jane says there is so much organizational inertia and that traditional leadership approach which has been deeply entrenched in our society and in our organizations across sectors is what’s valued. So it’s really going to require a dramatic culture change in what we look up to, value, admire, and recognize in our communities/society in every respect. And that culture change is probably the hardest change to make because it’s a fundamentally different set of values. Jane makes the point that we spend so much time and energy giving attention to people who are in power who don’t have high integrity/good values when there are so many others who are really working to change the world. But they are under recognized, overworked, under resourced, and underappreciated, which says something about our the sad state of our society – and the reason Jane does the work she does. There needs to be a more mindful approach to what we value and what we put our time, attention and resources into—and we’ve been moving in the wrong direction for a very long time.
Sponsor: Authentic Learning Labs
[34:34] – If you’re looking for ways to help ensure your learning business is moving in the right direction, we suggest you check out our sponsor for this quarter.
Authentic Learning Labs is an education company seeking to bring complementary tech and services to empower publishers and L&D organizations to help elevate their programs. The company leverages technology like AI, Data Analytics, and advanced embeddable, API-based services to complement existing initiatives, offering capabilities that are typically out of reach for resource-stretched groups or growing programs needing to scale.
[35:20] – What’s next for the network leadership field? Jane shares the good news is she has seen a dramatic increase and interest in this approach over the last 5-6 years. She reiterates that many organizations see the power in this, not because they learned it from her, but because they’ve seen it work in their own experience. She simply provides the framework and a language for articulating a way of working that many people have been practicing for as long as people have been living in communities—and this is going back to very basic ways of building community. Jane discusses how this gives her hope and is the way forward.
[40:06] – What is one of the most powerful learning experiences you’ve been involved in, as an adult, since finishing your formal education? Jane shares that for her, it’s absolutely being a parent. She talks about her experience parenting – and home schooling – her four kids.
[42:49] – How to connect with Jane and/or learn more:
- Website: https://newnetworkleader.org
[43:54] – Wrap-Up
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[46:16] – Sign off