Award-winning speaker, author and non-executive director Dr Kirstin Ferguson doesn’t believe in throwing down a ladder once you have reached the top to help another woman climb. Instead, she recommends throwing down a rescue net so that many women can climb at once.
Dr Ferguson is well placed to be making recommendations on which props to provide as she is well and truly at the top of her game – following her long executive CEO career, she now sits on numerous ASX100 boards, mentors rising science and tech superstars and has a passion for helping women.
Last year, she spearheaded the wildly successful #CelebratingWomen social movement that saw over 700 women from 20 countries celebrate who they are and what they do across social media. The movement was part of her idea to inspire and promote female role models, supported by her extensive network and past experiences to make it happen. In the words of Dr Ferguson: “The female drummer in a rock band is a role model to the young teen who isn’t sure whether girls ever get to play drums in a band. The two female astronauts who boarded the international space station are role models to female adventurers and scientists everywhere.”
She understands something all good networkers do, and that is: it’s not about networking. It’s about people and the reward we stand to win from gaining their trust and investment. Relationships, and their ongoing benefits that ripple through our lives, unlock immense profit and potential to grow our companies, careers and character. And all the more, business is broadening its definitions of value to include the power of social capital.
Imagine a world one day where there’s no hierarchy , where your clout and standing, influence and level of seniority are not defined by your title or years of experience but rather the followership, influence, insight and value you bring. Reporting structures are lateral, traditional chains of command are flattened and expansive networks provide alternative paths for information flow so leadership teams are influenced from all levels. The wider your net, the more layers of opinion and more balanced your perspective. It’s happening, certainly not as quickly as we’d like it to, but it’s nonetheless moving in that direction.
Our virtual world is breaking down the proverbial cubicle. Those who see the benefit of it are those who stand poised to win the future.
Networks are changing
These days it’s all about social currency. Thanks to social media and global digitisation, the net worth of your networking has become your greatest asset. No longer is identity and reputation confined to the critical eyes of a geographically confined community. Now, public opinion is porous and unlimited ‒ perpetuated by online networks and virtual workplaces that operate across multiple geographies.
The old top down approach, with seniority and experience at the apex of the corporate ladder, is fast fading. The more apt image these days is that of a spider web ‒ multidirectional, interconnected, and complex. Companies like Disney, Microsoft and Target have embraced this new approach, implementing reverse mentoring 1:1 schemes that see fresh graduates educating older, senior executives on the value of emerging technologies and social media.
Young entrepreneurs are also boycotting painfully awkward after-work networking functions and choosing instead to attend networking boot camps. These retreats enable attendees to forge in-depth connections and bond with others through team-building activities, further strengthened by the online bonding that sustains these relationships long after camp has finished.
And for the engineer, who routinely operates behind the scenes and whose work goes unrecognised in the public spotlight, the new digital paradigm is demanding a ‘stepping out’ from the shadows. A constantly disruptive world calls for broader, integrated solutions ‒ and part of this package is ensuring that each social interaction is meaningful and memorable. Constructing personal networks is becoming just as important as the buildings that are created .
Will the top dogs become lost jobs?
The role of the CEO could very well become redundant. New concepts such as a Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO) are knocking on companies’ doors and stirring up the status quo. Based on blockchain technology, DAO provides a platform for ‘shareholders’ (those who own tokens in the DAO) to vote for smart contracts to be awarded to individuals. The technology is completely void of hierarchy. If you miss deadlines or treat people rudely, shareholders can withdraw their votes and terminate a contract immediately. Although there have been invariable teething problems with the prototype, insiders are predicting this flat, virtual and results-driven structure is the way of the future – albeit one that leaves bosses without a seat at the table.
Indeed, the power balance is shifting in the workplace from a traditional instrumental power to a new influential power. Essentially, this means it’s no longer in the hands of one autonomous leader. Today’s leadership model involves a more lateral kind of thinking in which anyone can operate within an organisation and inspire people to lead, listen and follow, based on the credible work, outputs, insights or wisdom provided.
Opportunities to evolve
As people increasingly career pivot, side hustle, and upskill, there are more opportunities than ever before to expand and diversify your network. Online networks are increasingly able to showcase your own brand with all the bells and whistles, which means your networks can grow limitlessly. But, everyone knows, numbers are not enough on their own. Having 5000 followers means very little if you fail to extract and infuse value into those connections .
As you only ever get out what you put in: investing into those relationships will always remain critical. It’s a fine balance when tending to your network. If you are continually extracting from your network, it will eventually erode. People will see you as a sales engineer or miner intending to withdraw every available resource you possibly can from the source.
Like any relationship, you have to give back ‒ and give back selflessly. When you take an authentic interest in other people, when you genuinely listen to their issues and throw your own time, interest and resources at their solutions, you will inadvertently build your network collateral value. Sincere interest has a smell to it ‒ and so does exploitation. People can whiff out both.
If the workplace of the future is going to operate without a traditional hierarchy and be driven by a flat, virtual and results driven structure then we all need to start reprogramming ourselves to not only survive but thrive in this new world. By reprogramming ourselves to thrive in networked organisations and societies, we can overcome some of the productivity and innovation challenges we face today, which slow progress by operating in complex and highly governed hierarchies. We can all shape this future but it must start with us.