WEadership Practice #2: Build Diverse Networks

This post is the second in a series that began here summarizing the findings of a one-year study of workforce leadership. Through that process, we have identified six practices next-generation leaders use to be effective; a new model of leadership we call WEadership, in a nod to its collaborative nature.

"We can now keep what used to be weak links [...] within our grasp, and build on them. This is a sea change affecting all industries and it won't go away. [Leaders] need to learn to leverage this powerful asset." - Kim, Program Director (IA)

Networks. They are everywhere. They link our devices. They link us to one another. That leaders need to build diverse networks almost goes without saying. But we'll say it anyway because it's that important, it's never complete, and because actually doing it is not always so easy.

Let's unpack the meaning of the practice, word by word.


First, "build." Not just network, build networks. Our research demonstrated that effective leaders seek out people from whom they can learn, personally and professionally. They invest time and do at least as much giving as getting, building relationships within and outside of their professional fields or disciplines, and connecting others in the process (this practice is also called Network Weaving). Effective leaders don't stop at meeting new people, they follow-up with action—by sharing information, collaborating on small projects, or engaging people in more formal ways.


Effective leaders take diversity seriously. They seek out diverse talent, perspectives, and opinions. They engage racial, cultural, and sexual minorities in meaningful ways, inviting them into decision-making processes not just consulting with them.

One area of diversity with which the leaders we consulted struggled was experiential diversity—or what many called "rank." There is constant pressure on senior leaders to interact with similarly ranking people, especially in formal settings, even as these leaders know they also need the insight and engagement of junior colleagues in their organizations and communities. Importantly, leader-to-leader engagements often compromise others kinds of diversity, since there are still fewer women and people of color in the top tiers of many industries and organizations.

Effective leaders find ways to engage people of different rank and tenure meaningfully in shared activities. Here are two simple practices our leaders reported using:

  • Inviting junior staff or community members to Board meetings, not as note-takers or errand-runners, but as contributors. And not in that strained, obligatory sort of way that asks one person to speak for his or her generation, but in a way that normalizes such contributions and creates an expectation of learning from them. Engaging across generations with purpose, sincerity, and respect invites other senior leaders to engage with their junior colleagues in similar ways.
  • Creating new mechanisms for engagement (or redesigning old ones)—social media platforms or cross-generational workgroups, for example. This strategy not only opens communication channels across groups, but helps make visible the formal and informal knowledge and skill sets within whole organizations or networks so that everyone can tap into them more effectively.

Creating new ways for people of different ages to work together—and experience a shared sense of accomplishment—is one of the best ways to overcome biases that inhibit collaboration among colleagues from different generations.


Networks are not just "groups" or "teams," they are people connected to one another in a wide variety of ways. They have specific structures which lend themselves to particular outcomes. Technology—including social media—has helped us visualize networks and spawned accessible applied methodologies for growing and improving them. Effective leaders—especially those in public interest or policy fields where relationships drive change—are learning how to shift from strategies rooted in organizations to more flexible network-based change models: a competitor in one line of business might be a collaborator in another; the most junior staff might be the lead on an important project because he or she maintains a relationship with a client or partner.

Network approaches can disrupt traditional hierarchies, creating tensions between colleagues of different rank or straining relations between traditional and new partners, but they can also extend the reach of leaders and their organizations, and improve leaders' ability to tap into needed resources.

Diverse networks can help leaders improve what they already do, and link to new ideas and fields of practices so they can better adapt to change.

Bibliography (containing many resources on leadership and networks)


Last Week: WEadership Practice #1: Adopt a Wide-Angle Point of View

Next Week: WEadership Practice #3: Embrace Openness

Kristin Wolff and Vinz Koller, of Social Policy Research Associates, authored the WEadership Guide (August 2011), the result of a one-year US Department of Labor study of leadership in the field of public policy concerned with work and learning. They were thrilled at the opportunity to link their professional pursuits (public policy) with their personal commitments to positive social change and innovation, and look to increase, accelerate, and intensify these connections within the field of workforce in the coming months. The entire project is documented at EnhacingWorkforceLeadership.org. Follow it at @WFLeadership.

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