It’s long been established that “who you know” matters when it comes to professional advancement. Networking – or the accumulation of contacts and connections that can be helpful – is a strategy most aspiring or established leaders accept as a necessary part of the work. The bigger the network the better. But not everyone likes to network: the process can feel transactional, impersonal, and, if you are an introvert like me, downright exhausting. Moreover, many of the natural spaces for successful networking (the golf club, the bar, or the conference circuit) may seem more welcoming to some – and less comfortable for others. But what if we reimagined networking? I’d like to offer an alternative: I call it “netbuilding” and I believe it is essential to effective leadership development.
Here’s what netbuilding looks like: imagine a small circle of leaders, joined by a deep sense of trust, an authentic desire to support one another, and a shared sense of purpose and joy. Add in a lot of laughter, space to know one another as people first, and time for exercise and relaxation. Then imagine the power of that net: a smart, creative, experienced team of collaborators who offer ideas, honest feedback, advice, inspiration, and encouragement in a trusted circle. Now your net is more than a web of useful or expedient connections. It’s a net of empathy, kinship, wisdom, support, and safety. It’s a source of deep learning and growth. It’s a new kind of power – one that fuels you to lead, inspires you, and supports you when you are unsure of how to move forward.
This summer, we decided to try something different – and it was all about netbuilding. On the encouragement of many of our clients, we convened a small group of female school leaders and trustees from across the country at the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York. We were a small but mighty group; 23 in total – and we came together to explore questions of leadership, gender, the challenges of education, and the particular problems facing schools.
You can’t build an effective net without strong ties – so we started where all good educators start: with emotional safety and personal connections. Rather than jumping quickly into content, or random interactions, we invested time in getting to know each other as individuals, establishing norms for our work together, and practicing listening and questioning skills that empower us as coaches to one another.
Then we got to work. No sessions, no tracks, no keynote speakers. Instead, we stayed together, worked independently and with one another, in a structured and facilitated process to get centered and focused. We tackled questions at the core of leadership: What matters to me? What do I need to be effective as a leader? What do I want to accomplish for myself and for my school? What does it look and feel like when I’m successful? What’s in the way?
Over the course of three days we built the net – we shared our stories, addressed our fears, and celebrated our strengths. We developed and practiced leadership mindsets and behaviors – grounded in coaching methodologies – to unleash what is possible in ourselves, our colleagues, and our schools. We consulted and critiqued. We honed our skills. We hiked, broke bread together, and simply relaxed. In short, we centered ourselves in a supportive, trusted, and joyful cohort of women committed to one another’s success.
Research indicates that women need different kinds of support and that they thrive when they build nets – smaller webs of trusted colleagues – to advance their leadership. I hypothesize this may be true for many leaders. Not just those who identify as women, but anyone who seeks deeper connections and more meaningful interactions. This July we hosted our first, but not our last, Women’s Leadership Summit. From here, we aim to reinforce and expand the net we’ve built – leaning into the investments and energies of the cohort – and leveraging technology and places where we can come together to collaborate and celebrate. Most important, we’ll continue to design experiences that facilitate “netbuilding” for aspiring and established leaders who seek deeper connections and collaboration. As one of our participants stated: “this may well have been the best professional development experience of my career” and 100% of the participants surveyed rated the summit “highly effective”. We think we are onto something - and we hope you’ll join us as we build new nets! Stay tuned for more!