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Carol Kinsey GomanWhat really distinguishes high performers from the rest of the pack? Their ability to maintain and leverage large, diversified networks that are rich in experience and span all organizational boundaries.

In other words, our greatest advantages aren’t coming from what we know but rather from whom we know – and the high achievers of today are not so much a product of superior expertise as they are a product of superior networks.

Not that it should have come as a surprise to those of us who study organizational behaviour. Flattened hierarchies and virtual enterprises have increased workplace complexity while reducing institutional support. We’ve gone from relying on org charts to depending on social networks. So now, more than ever, successful professionals must leverage their relationships.

And that made me wonder about the connection between personal networks and organizational change …

In the pursuit of “hard skill” competencies and formal strategies, we may have failed to notice that the most effective change agents are those individuals who have placed themselves at the centre of intricate webs of relationships. How to help employees build and maintain these unique relationships may be the most effective change-management “technique” a leader could learn.

The new business fundamentals include an increasing focus on knowledge, trust, relationships, and communities. And social networks – those ties among individuals that are based on mutual trust, shared work experiences, and common physical and virtual spaces – are in many senses the true structure of today’s organizations. Anything you as a leader can do to nurture these mutually-rewarding, complex and shifting relationships will enhance the creativity and readiness for change within your team or throughout your organization.

But, in order to capitalize on the business potential in relationships between people, trust has to be established. Trust is the belief or confidence that one party has in the reliability, integrity and honesty of another party. It is the expectation that the faith one places in someone else will be honored. Or at least that is the definition of trust in its “benevolence-based” form. Another type of trust, “competence-based,” describes a relationship in which one party believes another to be knowledgeable about a given subject. When building personal networks, both types of trust are essential. People have to believe that you know what you’re talking about, that you have accurate information and expertise, but they also have to believe that you’re taking their perspectives and concerns to heart.

Another ingredient of trusting relationships is consistent credibility. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that you can talk until you’re blue in the face, but you will never create trust unless your sustained behaviour parallels what you say. That’s why building trust can take so long. People are waiting to see a long-term, consistent pattern of behaviour that is congruent with what you’ve been telling them.

I’m not saying that leaders should throw out all formal change-management strategies. But I am suggesting that leaders should understand that the social side of change – which includes building personal networks and developing trusting relationships – might prove to be the most powerful strategy of all.

Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence.

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