In leadership as in life, it’s the people that matter. We build careers and companies on the relationships that we have with the most important people in our lives – family, friends, colleagues and partners. Sure there are other pressures and dynamics, but the human-to-human dynamic continues to create value for us all – and dominates our thinking and ways of doing business.

And it is this that makes me speculate – that perhaps the power to change our organizations, societies and cultures is less to do with the structures of power that we have come to accept, and more to do with an authentic willingness to focus on people.

Recently, Facebook announced that the world had become smaller – that the six degrees of separation that has been popularized through books, movies and hundreds of articles, had been halved. A team of data scientists working for Facebook crunched through the 1.6 billion strong membership of the social networking platform to reveal:

Each person in the world (at least among the 1.59 billion people active on Facebook) is connected to every other person by an average of three and a half other people.

SixDegrees-Facebook

So that means, according to network theory, that we are no more than four people away from anyone else. That includes Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg (who unsurprisingly both outperform the general population). It also includes the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, the amazing artist, Marina Abramovic and entrepreneur without peer, Richard Branson. It means from my mom through me, there is someone that is connected to Mark Zuckerberg. Or Richard Branson. Or anyone else on the planet.

Zuck-Sandberg

 

 

In theory, this would suggest that tackling challenges should be easy. In that we are all only separated by a few degrees, we could make a few calls, ask for an introduction or two, and make our pitch.

But let’s park that idea for a moment. Let’s look closer to home. Let’s look deep inside our own companies to see how impact might play out.

Within our organizations, we should be more connected but often aren’t. As executive coach, Mary Jo Asmus explains, as leaders we often think of the problem that needs solving rather than the situation requiring a connection. When a performance issue arose in relation to an employee, it soon became clear that the problem was not as black and white as first thought. As Mary Jo explains:

As we talked, Scott [the leader] became engaged in finding solutions to “solve the problem”. I asked if he had spoken to the individual about the performance issues.

I wondered out loud if Scott had talked to him [the employee] at all about what he expected from him in the role. Scott shook his head that he hadn’t.

In other words, Scott was addressing the issue, not the person. In this kind of situation, we can bring our communication skills and emotional intelligence to bear on a situation without resorting to policy or procedure. We can use our proximity and our relationship power to unlock the impasse. As Mary Jo says, “people aren’t a problem to be solved; they require a connection”.

I am seeing startups beginning to address this challenge – focusing on employees, their connections, relationships and skills. It’s not just Facebook – but enterprise focused apps and platforms that connect personal and professional purpose. Like any challenge, however, it will not be solved by technology alone. It will need leadership, change management and commitment.

I have written previously about compassionate leadership, supporting this approach with the right processes, incentives and actions. And I have also argued for more direct and directed action to bring greater diversity to Boards, leadership teams and to organizations more generally. But this is what it means in reality.

Compassionate leadership means stepping into the space of connections and relationships. It means bringing those connection points a degree or two closer.

Nina Nets It Out: We often underestimate the power of communication and relationship – yet our private and professional lives are dominated by both. Tapping into this power can unlock tremendous value for our employees and our organizations, saving time, money – and as importantly – relationships.

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