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  • Writer's pictureSherry

June 2013 SBCo Newsletter: The Power of Talent Networks

Our special guest for the June HRoundtable was Rob Cross, Professor of Management at the University of Virginia and Research Director of The Network Roundtable (100 companies sponsoring research on network applications for organizations and their leadership). His research focuses in an area that is so fascinating in this day of social media, collaboration and looking to get more done with less. Some say this work is the new “Next” for understanding and leveraging organization performance.

Rob understands the human side of business and sees how relationships and informal networks in organizations can be analyzed and then improved to promote competitive advantage, leadership effectiveness, quality of work life and more.

The human element of information exchange and collaboration beyond our “virtual digital world” makes this compelling. Rob had us thinking about our own networks and the implication of getting work done in entirely new ways across traditional boundaries.

Sherry Benjamins: Rob, you talk about the power of making invisible work visible by analyzing relationships. Why is this insight so relevant today?

Rob Cross: We know through solid research that excelling in talent management increases earnings and improves operational performance. The stakes are high today to achieve this kind of result. We also know from other people’s research that high performing organizations are 57% more likely to provide their global teams with collaborative and social networking tools. Therefore, we are not only analyzing organizations, their structure and performance but also how work gets done informally through collaborations across and organization. That is the invisible work that is done by “connectors” or influencers in your organization. When you overlay performance data, for example, on this network view, you begin to see peoples’ broader collaboration contribution across departments and companies.   We then see where there are key players that are making much greater collaborative contributions than most organizations talent programs recognize. For example, it is common for us to identify roughly 50% of key talent that is missed in organizations when we take this view. Further, on the fringe of these networks are peripheral players (often those with low tenure) which we focus on for for mentorships across function or for onboarding talent plan that supports collaboration with key influencers.

SB: What has been most surprising to you when conducting this analysis and working with senior leaders?

RC: I have the opportunity to look at the formal structures in business and then overlay the analysis we do to identify the informal structures and see how work and decisions really get made. I am always taken with the fact that 3-5% of the people in an organization are 20-35% of the value added in getting things done. Also, it still surprises me that 20% of the top producers in a team are on the fringe of the network. They are typically great at getting their own work done but don’t provide leverage or help to their colleagues. Clearly companies miss out by not being able to better capitalize on these people. There are simple actions to take so that there is an accelerated integration or onboarding of those individuals whether they are high performers or the newcomers. It may surprise you but in most strong culture organizations we have been a part of we can expect it to take 3-5 years to build influence in a network. So, if you lose a high performer, who is also seen as a central connector – the “go to person” to get things done, this has serious implications for the team and department performance

SB: Does your analysis show that high performers think and act more strategically about relationships?

RC: Yes, high performers maintain networks inside and outside the organization. They maintain memberships in multiple professional or technical communities and they also position themselves at key leverage points within organization networks. They value connections that bring new ideas and market awareness and importantly are not so much people that go to a lot of meetings or have big facebook accounts. Rather they are nuanced in how they build networks and understand the importance of connections that offer political support, mentoring and professional growth. The high performer is able to quickly identify their personal support team. These are the connections bringing them positive energy and what one of my clients called “buzz” and helping them bring out the best in themselves and others. This to me is a very powerful idea as it is showing that the successful people don’t just reach out a lot to build networks. Rather they are people that create pull by being energizers. By virtue of creating enthusiasm around them they benefit as better idea, information, opportunities and ultimately talent migrates in their direction. Importantly being an energizer is not just charisma or extroversion. Rather it is built in consistently engaging in nine fairly stable behaviors that can be taught.

SB: What is meant by “hidden talent” in your network analysis work?

RC: There are large numbers of employees that don’t register on management’s radar and we call them “hidden talent.” Although they make great contributions to the organization, they don’t appear as connectors, or on top talent lists. This list is usually larger than most senior leaders realize. When we compare our list of top connectors (highly collaborative employees) with the management list of top talent (from succession planning) we see an overlap of only 30-40%.   There are reasons for this – one is that there is a focus on individual performance and not collaborative work. There is also the element of “favorites.” If a manager is not looking for signs of great collaboration, the “star” performer shows up more often.

SB: We learned that you are working closely with senior leadership teams concerned about innovation and culture. What do they value most from this analysis and discussion of network?

RC: They are looking at the leadership profile and what behavior supports the culture and brings the highest level of success to the company. Is there burnout among the troops or are leaders energizing others? Are they seeing a balance between tapping into people in their network to get work done and connecting with others on a personal level? The research shows that high performing leaders show concern for others and this allows trust to develop in relationships. If leaders are too heavily oriented toward accomplishing tasks at any cost, they burn through relationships. This shows up when others are not willing to help them in the future.

Human Resources can drive this expanded discussion about talent networks. Rob’s book, The Hidden Power of Social Networks and articles in Harvard Business Review and MIT Sloan Management Review offer additional ideas on where to start. For additional insights on applications of Rob’s research you can find a range of white papers and cases on his website ( Several of our HRoundtable members are considering this analysis to help them understand how to launch a new product across global teams or provide insight into the best way to organize resources for mission critical cross functional teams.

What I appreciated most from Rob was his practical view. He had us draw a network we cared about. This surfaced rich discussion. If you want to learn more about Network Analysis, and how organizations are using these tools, send me a quick email or blog inquiry and we will help you connect to other HR leaders doing this work.


Our newsletter this year will continue to highlight artists who are innovative change agents and catalysts for wonder, new language and ideas. Enjoy!

Julie Mehretu's enormous paintings explode with frenetic energy. The New York-based, Ethiopian-born painter produces works on a dauntingly large scale, making and layering delicate, swooshing, cartographic marks. The results are turbulent atmospheres of blips, struts and wires precariously frozen in action. These paintings adopt architectural drafting, map making, systems data and intuitive abstraction. These large spaces sandwich disparate places, times and structures, representative of a contemporary globalized climate of access, communication and consumption.

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