“Building a purposeful social network” - a course update

If you want to systematically improve diversity, mobility, and employee engagement within your firm, then a good place to start is teaching people how to shape their reputation and build relationships at work. (More on that here and here.) Towards that end, I proposed a course about a year ago that would cover a range of skills:

“Some are basic life skills like writing, speaking, and building relationships. Others are relatively new, like using social tools and practices to engage an audience. The combination of all of these can be extremely powerful.

But you’ll only learn them by doing. And not in a 2-hour corporate diversity workshop.”

Since then, with the support of many people at work, we created and delivered that course - a 3-month course called “Building a purposeful social network.”

Here’s how it went.

What worked

There were no external speakers or offsite venues. Just a few dinners, coffee, and some good snacks. But we proved the basic hypothesis underpinning the course: that “everyone can learn the skills needed to build relationships and shape their reputation.”

Each of the 14 mid-level managers in the class (several of whom were quite skeptical at first) came to understand the concepts, appreciate the potential, and take steps toward building their own purposeful networks.

Results, however, varied wildly.

What didn’t work

Perhaps 1/3 of the class applied the ideas well, 1/3 made some tentative attempts, and 1/3 was still struggling to do something despite knowing they should.

That's okay, but I wanted everyone to make meaningful progress.

The classes themselves - a combination of lecture, supporting media (videos, blog posts) and in-class exercises to actually put the lessons into practice - worked reasonably well.

The biggest mistakes related to what we did between classes. My approach to peer support, for example, was naive. Just lumping people together and calling them a peer group wasn’t adequate. The connections weren’t strong enough to provide meaningful support.

When I noticed the problems with peer support, I tried to make up for it by offering one-on-one coaching. But while the dozen or so sessions we had were useful, the scheduling was too ad hoc for coaching to be effective.

So, in general, we needed more structure between classes. Despite everyone’s best intentions, their regular jobs and routines simply got in the way. To help them change their current work habits and create new ones, we needed to better prepare for and organize any learning outside of the scheduled sessions.

Adjustments to the course outline

The course contents were good - except for one important topic we missed altogether. Here are the 5 main topics I wrote about originally along with some adjustments I’d make next time:

1. Defining your personal goal

This is the most obvious and the most difficult part of the course, helping each person answer “What do you want to achieve?” This part of the course helps people think through and articulate their objectives. Everyone shares their goal with their peer group and discusses it, often asking “Why?” in an effort to ensure the goal will lead to greater engagement and fulfillment.

“Defining your purpose” proved too abstract and frustrating for most people. We quickly made adjustments (that I wrote about here)  to help people shrink the change and gain confidence in applying new ideas and skills.

2. “Leading with generosity” and the basics of building relationships

Perhaps Ferrazzi’s greatest contribution has been to reframe how people think of networking. To make it less about point-to-point transactions and more about leading with generosity to a broad, diverse set of people who can help you reach your goal. This section includes content on generosity, authenticity, and intimacy while also providing techniques and exercises to put those concepts in an enterprise context.

This worked very well. We talked about 5 mindsets - Generosity, Vulnerability, Authenticity, Intimacy, and Empathy. "Leading with generosity” was an approach that resonated with everyone.

3. Listing your assets

To lead with generosity, you need to have something to give. And most people think too narrowly about what they have to give, thereby limiting their interactions. Again, Ferrazzi reframes how people understand the full range of value they can bring to another person. In this part of the course, everyone develops a comprehensive inventory of what they have to offer to others.

4. Your relationship action plan

Armed with a clear sense of purpose, an understanding of how to approach people, and an inventory of what you have to offer, the next step is to identify who can help you - both the kinds of people and specific individuals. You’re not trying to get anything specific from each person other than a closer relationship through authentic, generous behavior. (Again, this is the genius of Ferrazzi.)

The idea is that the sum of these actions over a broad, diverse network will lead to a set of closer relationships that are fulfilling in and of themselves while also yielding more opportunities.

These sections were straightforward and worked well. If I would change anything, I'd shorten them and make more room for the other areas and for in-class implementation of the exercises.

5. Using social platforms

So far, all of this has very little to do with technology. Dale Carnegie could have taught this course in 1936. The last section of the course is to teach people how to use modern social tools and practices. The key difference is that these tools make it easy to publish and get feedback from a wide audience in a public way. Based on all that information, the technology makes it easier to scale the activities in the previous section, to find many more people and to many more opportunities.

In this last section, we learned that people’s familiarity with the tools affected their perception of their effectiveness. So simply explaining and then using the different platforms made a marked difference in people’s perceptions. (More about that here. )

One important section we missed

In the last class, we stumbled onto something we missed and that we should have done at the very beginning: we leveraged the network in the room.

From a few discussions we had in the prior class, I started to notice we could help each other more than I’d imagined. It turns out that, even in a big firm, a group of 15 people  has content and connections that are useful to at least one other person in the room.

So we simply went around the room, person by person, and talked about what help we needed and who could provide that help.  It was the best, most productive session we had. It resulted in more meaningful connections and led to a set of specific contributions from everyone that we’re tracking now.

Next time, even before the first class, we’ll share bios and do more prep work so we can start thinking about the network in the room from the very beginning.

What’s next?

Having identified my mistakes and belatedly discovered the utility of the network in the room, I couldn’t bear to end the inaugural class just yet. So we postponed graduation for another 10 weeks, enough time for everyone to apply what we learned and make more meaningful progress toward our goals.

After this first class ends, I’d like to have another class to see how the adjustments work. And, after we prepare more material and re-structure some things, I’d like to hold classes in other cities and train some other instructors.

Will this approach scale? Is it practical? Well, right now, my goal is simply to help people, a dozen or so at a time, to shape their reputation and take control of their career. To prevent people from stagnating in less-than-fulfilling roles. To help them stop squandering potential - both theirs and the firm’s.

If we can achieve these goals for one small group, then we’ll have something useful we can build on.