What makes you valuable to your organization? If you’re a senior leader, you may assume it’s what you know as a result of your deep experience. While there are elements of truth to that, the value of what you know pales compared to the importance of the value of whom you know. The most visible and dependable benefit you provide comes from the relationships you have within and outside of your organization.
Anyone can look at the organizational chart and tell who is supposed to have the power to get things done. But the relationship of the formal org chart to the dynamics of how things are actually accomplished is tenuous. The rising science of network analysis and the tools of network mapping are demonstrating that there are gate keepers who shape the beliefs, culture, and information flow that limit what is actually delivered.
Your administrative assistant has more practical knowledge about the integrity, character, relationships, and performance of the people in your organization than you do. They can call any office in the enterprise and get something done. They have the combined power of association with your formal position and the quality of their own authentic relationships, and you depend on them more than you know.
Setting aside the technical knowledge needed to do your job, there’s a high probability that your ability to solve complex strategic problems depends on your relationships with people who aren’t in your own group. You need good relationships with more senior people to ensure there’s cover for the innovative solutions you will undertake. Your relationships with peers in other groups ensure that the resources can be acquired without significant pushback from others who might feel threatened.
The truth is, you depend on a wide range of people to get anything important done and you’ve worked to build those relationships. It’s through your professional social network that you leverage the most critical elements of your leadership.
The most powerful leaders with the best track records share this in common: they have deep, boundary-crossing, extensive, well-connected networks. As a result, the biggest obstacle to the success of a new leader hired from outside is their dependence on formal structures to do what can only be done well through the influence of a credible leader with effective relationships. If you care about the success of your successor, you should recognize that no one who’s hired from outside is going to start with the connections they need.
There are important consequences of this reality. One is that succession planning needs to have network development built in as a core success factor. The only person who already has most of that network accessible to them is your administrative assistant, hence the (only slightly) tongue-in-cheek proposal that your admin would be your best successor.
Since no one already has that network, you must allot significant time and energy to socializing any prospective successor. Create a network map of all the key relationships and use it as a planning device for onboarding new executives. Outlining the scope of responsibility in a new role has to be accompanied by expanding the scope of relationships and introductions leading to serious conversations about how a successor will develop their collegial relationships to meet each other’s needs.
Certainly your experience in the industry and your market savvy are essential. Your knowledge of how your business works and how it makes money can’t be neglected. But the core mechanism through which you exercise your influence and affect how things are accomplished is your network of social relationships. Keep it healthy and be willing to share if you want a vital legacy.