Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Unsung Leaders in Every Organization

Last week I heard an intriguing presentation by Rob Cross, a professor of management at the University of Virginia, at a conference on "knowledge management." Professor Cross maps the informal but crucial social ties within companies: His research looks at which individuals seek out which other individuals when they need information and advice to get their work accomplished. He said that only 3 to 5 percent of people account for 25 to 30% of the "value-added ties," but half the time the company's official "leaders" don't know who these 3 to 5 percent actually are. And sometimes the official "leaders" are largely out of the loop themselves. The organization's real "leaders" are likely to be those people in the well-connected 3 to 5 percent, even if they're lower down in the organization chart. They're the ones who have real influence. Meanwhile, the reach of the nominal "leaders" is often remarkably limited. Professor Cross says that 60 to 70 percent of their ties go right back to the people in the fiefdom from which they've come. They usually fail to establish the vital ties that they need throughout every part of the organization.

I was also fascinated when Professor Cross said that only 1 to 3 percent of the population succeeds by building large social networks. These are the so-called "connectors" described in Malcolm Gladwell's famous "Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg" artice in the New Yorker magazine, later incorporated into his book "The Tipping Point." But Professor Cross says that most "high performers," the top 20 percent in an organization, build quality relationships rather than large social networks. They don't know everyone, but the people they know, they know very well, and they invest in relationships before they'll actually need them to get their work accomplished.

Professor Cross was only one of many thought-provoking speakers at the conference, which was sponsored by the APQC (formerly the American Productivity & Quality Center) in Houston.

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