Friday, June 29, 2012


If we are serious and ambitious in our drive to transform our organizations into next generation social enterprises (or social businesses), we need to unlearn most of what we think we knew about leadership, and focus our R&D efforts on next generation leadership.

Working on the trenches of the social business transformation, I have had the opportunity to see how different people impacted these programs, either from a positive or a negative point of view. My focus being on talent management and leadership, I wanted to take the time to reflect on the ones that provided energy, thought leadership, problem-solving skills, engagement, passion, time, ... and that strongly contributed to accelerating the transformation. I wanted to take the time to reflect on the ones that contributed unexpectedly and the ones that unexpectedly did not contribute to the deep transformation.

The issue with emerging leadership

A post by Harold Jarche, defining leadership as "an emergent property of a balanced network", finally got me thinking on this, as talent emergence is what I find most rewarding in the projects I lead with my clients.

There were, to my mind, two key terms in this sentence: "emergent" and "balanced" (or "in balance", following Harold). My experience actually confirms that, for a social business transformation to work, you need to be able to foster "leadership emergence", that is, the emergence of people that are not leaders such as defined by the conventional corporate wisdom (or by the HR practices and frameworks), but that will nonetheless take responsibility for the key conversations, relationship building, activities and tasks that will ultimately drive the transformation. But I would say that is not yet a real emergence, as these people have to be identified and developed by project owners.

The term balanced is less clear to me. In all the projects I have been involved in, the network is not balanced. More often than not, the social network is not even there, it is also emergent. One could argue that networks progress accross different "balance degrees" (I assume this is what Harold argues with the term "in balance"), but at the very beginning of a social business project, the corporate social network is not big enough and, more importantly, not complex enough to have any emergent properties. That is why fostering new talents is a key responsibility for the project owners. I will explore in a future post how to foster these talents in an environment in which it is both possible to recognize them without developing them along existing talent management practices.

And then, what are, in the first stages of a corporate social network implementation, the people that emerge, that take center stage ? In my opinion, what emerges is much more social leadership than business leadership, and that can be a threat to your project. Let me be clear : social leadership is key in any organization, and it is also key for the success of your social business project (as are, in this context, technological leadership and thought leadership). But what we are looking forward is transforming the business, pushing it to the next level, and to do that, you need next level business leadership.

A vision for the social network : from technological infrastructure to business infrastructure

To really have a feeling of what, in my opinion, we should be looking for when we speak about leadership within a social enterprise context, it is important to clearly define what we drive to build when we engage in corporate social network projects.

And we all know today that, far from being only a technological platform that allows employees to be connected and to build relationships (like they would, for instance, on Facebook or Linkedin), the corporate social network must become the new business infrastructure of the corporation.  This entails changing the deep structure of the organization, changing, if you wish, its OS.

This business infrastructure allows both collaboration and cooperation of all the business associates (partners, employees, associates, clients, ...), conveniently linked through an ever-evolving ecosystem of social technologies (that have embeded the existing systems of records). This infrastructure is a matrix for  culture evolution, and is built by all its members, considered as builders.

This vision of a corporate social network is not yet a reality for most corporations I know, as they adapt to the Big Shift. And so the question remains, how do you identify and foster a kind of leadership that is not yet (or not entirely) the official leadership ? And then, how do you recognize it, reward it, how do you develop these unleaders, being as they are, at least in the beginning, revolutionaries, contrarian thinkers or unassuming managers ?

The need for unleaders.

Let me explain the use of the term unleaders. It comes from unconferences. Unconferences or participant-driven meetings, have emerged as an answer to the need to invent new ways for how knowledge is communicated, exchanged, challenged, deepened in mass meetings. And I think there is a need to challenge the ways in which leaders (unleaders) are identified, singled out, nurtured, developed, recognized and in the end, rewarded. This is really important during the transformation phase of a social enterprise transformation as, when the balanced network is a reality, leadership will indeed be an emerging property.

If your remember, in conferences, the most valuable knowledge used to be exchanged in the lobbies and unconferences emerged precisely to have the lobby conversations take center stage. In my experience of corporate social networks, it is often the unrecognized community member, curator, middle manager or front line employee that goes the extra-mile and therefore helps establish the relationship, pushes for real trust building, leverages external talent or identifies the innovation potential, that will in the end win the day for the project owners.

With unleaders, I am trying to have the work of these pionneers recognized, even while they do not belong in the existing leadership or management categories. It is a key success factor. And by recognition, I certainly do not mean a "social badge" or a community dinner. I am talking about compensation and business responsibilities.

In the first phases of a social business or enteprise 2.0 (or any management innovation project), the responsibility for identifying, coaching and promoting these unleaders ultimately rests with the project sponsors and owners. I would go as far as saying that a social business transformation boils down to experimenting new types of unleadership, and progressively letting go of the responsibility of choosing next generation unleaders, a responsibility that should eventually rest with the social network. Then we would have leadership as an emergent property.

But only if we have taken the time to design the adapted compensation and recognition systems (and not adapting the existing structures).

As a conclusion, I do not think Chief People Officers should focus on nurturing leaders. Leaders will emerge whenever an organization can help build its people passion to work, collaborate, cooperate on a company's mission. Instead, in an ever faster-paced economic environment, the Talent Management teams should focus on identifying the leader types that will push their organizations to the next level. 

The past and future of any leader should be unleadership.

In the next few days, I will be writing about my experience experimenting unleadership and about interesting emerging leadership (or unleadership) types.

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