Some people just seem to have a gift for connecting people and ideas. They seem to know people in all sorts of industries, with varying interests, and they’re able to ‘connect the dots’ between people and ideas and bring them together They are ‘connectors.’
Malcolm Gladwell describes just this kind of person in his book, ‘The Tipping Point’, where he explains why certain ideas become social epidemics, or go viral, and others don’t. In his book, Gladwell says that to have an idea, any idea, grow large and take on a life of its own, it takes three kinds of people. Each social epidemic needs a Connector, a Maven and a Salesman. But, its the connector who’s the one that really gets the idea moving and helps it expand. (try this link to take a quick quiz to see if you are a connector)
The Connector, according to Gladwell, is a person who is able to make connections between what seem to be very different and disparate people and ideas. They are the person who seems to know everyone, and is always trying to connect people and their ideas. Connectors, according to Gladwell, are people who have an extraordinary knack for making friends and acquaintances. Then, they are able to use these relationships and grow and connect people to each other.
In the past few weeks (here, here and here), I’ve been discussing how effective leadership requires that you are an influencer. As I said, influence is the currency of leadership, and to be effective, you need the ability to influence those you lead. While leadership is both an art and a science, and can be complex to describe, I indicated there were four basic skills you need to improve your influence.
- Relationship Building
While communication is a key skill and foundational to the rest of the skills, it’s connection that will allow you to grow your influence and expand both ideas and networks for the benefit of the organization.
First, connection is what Gladwell described; the ability to bring people together, and grow a network of people that having relationships in common. By having a larger network, you are able to tap into a much broader set of opinions, ideas and experiences than you would otherwise. In other words, the more people you know, the more you are likely to learn new things that you can bring to your leadership toolbox.
But, connection also refers to your ability to connect what are seemingly different ideas and viewpoints. By being able to see or hear one idea, and then connect it in some way to another idea is truly a unique skill. One such connector was Arthur Fry.
While you don’t likely recognize the name, there is no doubt you have benefitted from his ability to connect ideas. Fry, a scientist for a company called Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing company (later named 3M), is the inventor of the Post It Note. As the story goes, Fry was listening to a lecture by another scientist on a new type of adhesive that he was working on. This adhesive had a good bond, but could be easily removed because the glue never really ’set.’ While the glue was interesting, there didn’t seem to be an actual application for it as far as the inventor could see.
But, one evening, Arthur was singing in his local church choir, and grew frustrated with the small pieces of paper falling out of his song book and made a connection to the glue that he had just learned about. Getting a sample of the glue, he applied it to one edge of some small pieces of paper and tested it out on his song book. The paper stayed, and didn’t tear or destroy the songbook paper when removed. The Post It Note was born.
Arthur was a connector. He was constantly learning, seeking out new ideas, and inevitably going back to his ‘databank’ of ideas and relationships to make connections that others didn’t make. He was able to visualize how seemingly different ideas could really be used together, and was able to apply that knowledge to solve problems.
As a leader, you need both sets of connector skills. You not only need to be able to bring people together, but you need to be able to learn from each of the relationships and begin to ‘connect the dots’ between the ideas and capabilities that each person has.
One of the more interesting talks on making connections was by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. During his 2003 Ted Talk, Bezos describes how the addition of electricity to homes was for one single purpose; to power the newly invented lightbulbs people were wanting in their house. A large infrastructure was created just around light, and there was no other thought for what was available.
In fact, the electrical outlet as we know it wasn’t invented until much later, and really came about because some were able to make the connection between the infrastructure that was installed in homes to power lights, and the ability to power other tasks that were previously manual. The idea of the electrical appliance really came about because some were able to ‘connect the dots’ between two distinct problems. (the video above is worth watching, and you will definitely enjoy how dated a talk from 2003 has already become!)
If making connections with people and with ideas are a key skill, the obvious question that comes up is whether this is a learned skill, or a natural one. While I do believe that some people’s personalities are just more inclined toward making connections with people, and the desire to know and grow their network is somewhat innate, it can be learned and practiced. But, the ability to connect ideas is a much tougher one to learn. There seems to be a subset of people who have the ability to see things in ways other don’t, and make connections in their minds that eventually lead to new breakthroughs.
However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways you can make yourself more adept at making connections. Here are some things you can do to practice and grow these skills.
Make Better People Connections
- Be Purposeful – One of the most important skills in growing your personal network is to make it a priority. If you want to know more people, you have to make an effort to know more people, and that only comes from practice. Set some goals to meet someone new each week. Make lunch plans with someone new at the office and learn all you can about them. You have to get from behind your desk if you are going to grow your network, so schedule it.
- Be Interested – If small talk doesn’t come easy to you, before you meet with someone new, make a list of questions that you want to answer. These should be questions that get the person talking about themselves, and shouldn’t just be about work. One of the best ways to get to know someone new is to ask them about the things that usually matter most to them; their families, hobbies and interests. Ask just a few questions about these things and you will have a great conversation going before you know it.
- Be Generous – As you get to know someone, one of the most important skills I have learned is to try and introduce them to someone else I already know. As you learn about them, you are going to find out that they have something in common with someone you already know. Don’t let that opportunity pass by. Offer to introduce them to the person that has something in common, and follow through. Once you’ve introduced the two, you’ve just become a Connector!
Make Better Idea Connections
- Ask How? – To truly make connections between ideas, you have to be inquisitive. That means that you have to be interested in what you are hearing, and want to know enough detail that you start to understand how something you’ve heard in the past might connect with what you are hearing now. Being curious, and wondering about new ideas is a first step.
- Ask Why? – Without a good understanding for why something works the way it does, you are stuck with a surface idea and the connections are harder to make. Ask lots of questions as you are learning new things, and focus on the why. The why will help you get behind the reason for what you’re learning, and help you to draw out new questions and thoughts.
- Ask What If? – The reason many don’t make connections between concepts is that they don’t take the time to ask ‘what if?’ when they think of new ideas. We are taught from an early age to focus on learning by being taught in the didactic method. Essentially, our learning is focused solely on the teacher teaching, and the student learning, and the goal is capture of knowledge. However, we aren’t as good at experiential learning (Socratic method), where the value of asking questions, learning from each other and drawing out new ideas is a priority. Asking “what if?’ is the beginning of being a connector of ideas.
- Be a reader – There is an old phrase that says ‘leaders are readers.” The reason behind this is the fact that those who read are constantly learning new information, and gaining new perspectives and insights. Reading trade journals, industry-focused books and other non-fiction helps you broaden your thought process and skill sets. It also helps you expand your ‘connection’ skills, because it charges to the brain to be on the lookout for new ideas. But, non-fiction isn’t the only things you should read. Good fiction also helps relieve your mind of stress and helps you become more imaginative. In fact, even the Pentagon has learned this lesson. They frequently consult with Hollywood film producers to gather new, and imaginative ways that our safety might be at risk so they can come up with new ways of combating it!
Ultimately, your ability to influence through connections comes from both your ability to bring people together, but also through your ability to bring the ideas of these people together as well. Many of the great breakthroughs in life come from challenging what you already know, and putting new combinations of ideas together. And, as a leader, when you can energize people together to solve big problems for the good of the organization or team, you’ve accomplished what you were asked to do.
Who are some of the ‘connectors’ you know? What is it about them that makes them so good at connecting people and ideas? What other ideas can you share with everyone?