Insights from a Conversation on Leadership and Networks

At a recent Leadership Learning Community Bay Area Learning Circle facilitated by Claire Reinelt, LLC’s Evaluation and Research Director, we convened a group of local LLC members to discuss some of the challenges and successes they have seen in their areas of work, in relationship to collective and networked leadership.  As I listened closely to the participants, I was struck by the various struggles they face, particularly around defining and articulating ‘successes’, and evaluating the impact of their efforts – not only to respond to funders’ demands but also to internal demands.

There were two main observations that were of particular interest to me during this conversation:

1. The role of network development

Some of the participants mentioned that in addition to conducting the evaluation of a program, they were also trying to establish a network to connect program participants.  Some of the challenges they were facing included communicating the value of the network and encouraging program participants to join the network.  In one particular example, network development was an afterthought – something that may seem out of the blue for participants and not all that relevant to their current context and priorities. 

If we begin to think about how a networked approach can be leveraged from the beginning, as the program is being developed, we may see more positive and lasting results.  For instance, instead of trying to connect program participants after the program has been completed, network building can be incorporated as part of the leadership curriculum, so that participants begin fostering those relationships from the beginning.  There are multiple benefits of relationship building, such as peer learning and support.

At the end of the program, participants with strong network building competencies have greater potential to continue to meaningfully engage long after the completion of the program.   The strength of a network can be assessed using social network mapping to identify connections and collaborations; becoming another indicator of success that may help articulate the value of the program.

2. The expectations of funders

It was interesting that most participants were interested in engaging in the process of evaluation, not because of funder demand, but because they wanted to learn from their experiences.  In fact, one participant said it was ‘the best thing we have ever done.’  However, when the evaluation is driven by foundations and program expectations are unrealistic, or success is defined too narrowly, frustration and challenges may arise. 

For instance, a participant mentioned how his program is intentional about building in network capacity from the beginning, allowing program participants to use network competencies to scale the impact of their training, provide support to each other, and recruit other members of their networks into the program.  The organization constantly evaluates the impact each participant is having on his or her particular project, sometimes in more immediate forms such as helping to fundraise, or in more distal ways such as improving the capacity of others to fundraise.  However, when reporting back to the funder, the more ‘distal’ measures are often more difficult to articulate, and may be overlooked in favor of more quantitative measures such as the cost per program participant.  Cost as an indicator of success does not take into account environmental factors and fails to tell the complete story.

 

As I reflected upon those observations with my colleagues, several areas of further exploration came up.  The Leadership and Networks publication that we are writing with key partners as part of the Leadership for a New Era collaborative series, will address some of those areas:

  • How to incorporate networks as part of a leadership strategy as opposed to the evaluation strategy
    • What does it mean to include a network strategy from program inception, i.e. identifying core network capacities that should be integrated into the program design from the beginning, such as network weaving?
  • When is a networked approach the ‘right approach’? What are some of the critical factors that need to be in place for this kind of approach to work?
  • Why should funders invest in networks?
  • How can programs evaluate networks and articulate their impact?

As we continue to identify areas of exploration, we encourage you to suggest ideas and share with us your experiences and resources.  To participate in the Leadership for a New Era initiative please visit www.leadershipforanewera.org.