By Carri Munn and Elsa Henderson
Impact networks are complex living systems, made of many interacting people, organizations, and ecosystems. In contrast to traditional organizations with linear processes and standard operating procedures, networks are dynamic, highly interconnected, and quite variable. To live into their potential, networks require a different kind of leadership that is focused on weaving connections and coordinating learning and action.
To live into their potential, networks require a different kind of leadership that is focused on weaving connections and coordinating learning and action.
In this article, we’ve drawn upon our experience as network practitioners, to describe the role of network coordinators and share some ideas for a successful hiring process. To hire for network leadership, we invite you to bring a relational mindset to the interview process, one that focuses on seeing connections and emphasizes trust rather than control. Keep in mind that the network coordinator role is significantly more nuanced and strategic than many people assume. To find a coordinator who is a good fit, the search process will likely need to include opportunities with prospective candidates to build rapport, envision them in action with real world scenarios, and assess their cultural agility — the ability to work across differences.
Converge is a network of consultants devoted to cultivating impact networks. We frequently support the process of hiring network coordinators for new and existing networks. Since 2013 we’ve worked with over 60 networks around the world. The purposes of the networks we’ve collaborated with span a wide range of disciplines, including science communication, impact investing, advancing the SDGs, and protecting migrant rights, and providing equitable economic opportunity, and environmental conservation. We follow the patterns across networks to uncover and share learnings from our practice that contribute to the collective wisdom in this emerging field.
The network coordinator is the one who wakes up thinking about the network.
The network coordinator is the one who wakes up thinking about the network. Like a gardener, they are constantly tending to the ‘soil’ and responding to changing conditions within and around the network. In the same way, the gardener supports the plants to produce a healthy yield, the network coordinator focuses on supporting the motivations of the participants, connecting people with each other, and fostering collaborations across the network. Rather than “leading the charge” and directing others, the network coordinator often works behind the scenes creating the conditions for group flourishing.
While the network coordinator is often viewed as an admin position or a secretary for the network, our experience has shown otherwise. We see the network coordinator as a senior-level position with two primary responsibilities: Ecosystem Facilitation and Network Weaving. Ecosystem facilitators embrace complexity and design with the whole system in mind. They create a safe container for generative dialogue with diverse people with divergent perspectives. Network weaving is about catalyzing, cultivating, and tending channels of connectivity that encourage understanding and information flow amongst stakeholders across the network and its larger ecosystem.
To be effective, a network needs senior-level decision-makers participating who are capable of making change within their organizations. The network coordinator needs to be a peer to these senior-level participants in the network, both in terms of content as well as life experience. This is important because they will be offering thought partnership in strategic conversations. To advance key network initiatives, the coordinator needs to effectively navigate the politics and protocols within the ecosystem the network is influencing. To work with the complexities of network perspectives and relationships in supportive ways, the coordinator must demonstrate cultural competence and empathy for the professional context of the network members.
How do you go about hiring a network coordinator? Whether you’re hiring your first coordinator or a successor for an existing network, it’s important to design a thoughtful process that assesses capabilities beyond technical skillsets. Success as a network coordinator is all about the ‘soft stuff’, and involves skills in empathy, listening, holding space for diverse perspectives, identifying common ground, and catalyzing working groups. Because a network takes a relational approach to complexity rather than viewing it as a problem to be solved, network coordinators who do well have the capacity to respond and adapt as the network evolves. For a more explicit list of network leadership capabilities see here:
Success as a network coordinator is all about the ‘soft stuff’, and involves skills in empathy, listening, holding space for diverse perspectives, identifying common ground, and catalyzing working groups.
Given the relative newness of this profession, it may be hard to find someone who’s already been a network coordinator before. That being said, there are roles that offer complementary skills and capabilities for network coordination. Some of these might include, senior-level project managers, strategy consultants, fundraisers, adult educators, conference planners, community engagement professionals, and senior recruiters. What these roles have in common is creating deliberate processes and working through other people to generate outcomes.
At Converge, we have recently discovered that many people who thrive in the network coordinator role have experience in the creative arts. In conversations with coordinators who have a background in the arts, they describe being at ease in the creative process. This includes being with the excitement and the ambiguity of the unknown as it takes shape and engaging productively with dynamic tensions. We’ve noticed they also display ease being in front of a group and improvising in real-time.
Our experience shows that three-stage interviews are highly effective for exploring a range of capabilities necessary to succeed in the role of network coordinator. Below we outline corresponding activities for each of the three stages that can assist you in narrowing your candidate pool from round to round. Each of these scenarios are outlines to riff and elaborate on to match your network’s context.
Interview Round 1 — Establishing Rapport
This round may be conducted as short phone interviews, or over a platform like zoom, that help you get a sense of a candidate’s warmth and storytelling abilities and help them get a feel for you/your network.
Check for a relational approach. Why it’s important: Achieving the potential of networks depends on the connectivity amongst participants and the quality of information and resources that are shared through the connections.
Assess framing and storytelling. Why it’s important: A large part of coordination is reflecting back to the members the wholeness of the network and its ongoing evolution.
Interview Round 2 — Envisioning the Role in Action
This round envisions a series of conversations about navigating common situations in networks. Each scenario offers an opportunity to notice how the candidate improvises a response in real-time and whether they respond in ways that empower network participants or tend toward control strategies that could have the effect of diminishing engagement.
Dynamic tensions. Why it’s important: Networks are inherently diverse, to maintain the diversity it’s important to honor people’s desire to go in different directions. In a healthy network, there are simultaneous options and activities for participants to engage in to advance the network’s purpose. Successful systemic change requires simultaneous action from many parts of the system. It’s natural for multiple things to be going on, and we are not interested in collapsing into one way forward; rather we are interested in uncovering what serves the network in the moment. Include this exercise in order to surface their capacity to acknowledge what’s happening in the group in real-time and propose a process for how to move forward.
Participant engagement. Why it’s important: The network belongs to its members. To thrive, networks need engagement over time. To sustain engagement, participants need to feel included in processes and take responsibility for their network.
Project support. Why it’s important: The job of the network coordinator is to support and accelerate the collective ambitions of the members. This means the members are doing the work of the network and the coordinator is coordinating the work.
Interview Round 3 — Assessing Cultural Agility
This round flips the script by turning the interviewee into the facilitator. The format provides a rich opportunity to notice how your final candidates encourage participation, honor diverse perspectives, synthesize content, and place themselves in relation to a group.
Values and Principles. Why it’s important: Top-notch coordinators center network values to create coherence across the diversity of network participants. Values are what is important and principles are what the values look like in action. Principles are the expression of values as guidelines for behavior. The most powerful values and principles are directly derived from the network’s purpose. Some will speak to how network members want to be together, others will speak to how network members approach collaborating on the purpose.
Successful systemic change requires simultaneous action from many parts of the system. It’s natural for multiple things to be going on, and we are not interested in collapsing into one way forward; rather we are interested in uncovering what serves the network in the moment.
In summary, network coordination is more of an art than a science. Our colleagues often say, “if you’ve seen one network, you’ve seen one network.” Each network is unique and will generate its own culture. A capable coordinator is an important precursor to cultivating a healthy network. Every network needs adaptive leaders who dance well with the dynamics of their network as a living system. Above all choose a coordinator who exhibits care, humility, and the capacity to grow and develop with the network.
We’d love to hear from you about what you’ve tried and what works well, so we can all advance the field of network practice together.
Converge is a network of strategists, designers, facilitators, and systems thinkers who help people and organizations navigate complexity and co-create a shared future. Learn more at converge.net
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