The challenges of leading in this highly volatile and uncertain time--what the acronym specialists call our VUCA  world--get a lot of attention these days. But much of the analysis about what you need to drive strong results often overlooks an emerging and important core competence of top performing leaders.
Let’s call it networking acumen--the mindset and skill set that is fast becoming a “must have” to bolster a leader’s agility and confidence in navigating today’s choppy waters. In fact, networking is key to how leaders learn--and it grows more relevant with each business quarter.
What do I mean by networking acumen, and why is it important? According to Rob Cross , a management professor at the University of Virginia and the author of The Hidden Power of Social Networks , creating, managing, and leveraging diverse internal and external networks is a key trait of leaders.
And there’s this: A recent study by the Corporate Leadership Council  found that “networks can provide global leaders with the best market and organization information, but global leaders struggle to build these networks.”
What type of networking works best for busy leaders?
First, a little context that resonates strongly with most leaders. More than ever, time is the most precious and guarded commodity for leaders. If you’re in that category, your business life mostly involves living meeting-to-meeting, traveling extensively, and working 24/7 thanks in large part to all the technology that keep us on the job nonstop.
Senior leaders often tell me they have very little time to read books, scan reports, research critical topics or wade through vast amounts of data and information on the Internet. And though social networks like LinkedIn are vital innovations in business today, they often play a more limited role in meeting the learning and information sharing needs of executives. Because they’re not exclusive peer forums, senior leaders are often more careful in social media--less able to open up and share, more guarded than they are when with their peers.
So how do most leaders stay abreast of critical knowledge, competitors and trends, and adapt to the myriad of changes and events coming at them, at greater and greater velocity, every day? Equally important: How do leaders connect with peers to trade insights, help each other with challenges, and test their hunches?
Put more pointedly: How do leaders learn?
Increasingly, top performing and time-starved leaders learn by networking--specifically, a particular type of networking that involves membership in a peer network. In fact, peer networks are indispensible for executives because of the credibility and trust that comes naturally among peers--the ‘you’re facing what I’m facing’ factor is huge and largely missing in social media, conferences, and other forums. Once peer leaders connect in such a way, they quickly tap into new thinking, valuable insights, proven solutions, and vetted practices from others a their level.
Professionally managed peer networks are unparalleled for delivering “high value for time”--a critical requirement for leaders where every minute counts. Leaders on the way up often aren’t aware of the options for joining professional peer networks--but a quick Internet search based on an individual’s specialty can yield good places to start--including network options available from my company, Executive Networks ; Vistage ; and Young Presidents Organization (YPO) .
Peer networks consist of members at the same level and from a similar function--usually with an organization of roughly the same size and geographic footprint. Members are drawn to peer networks for access to a diverse range of services that make connecting to valuable information and knowledge fast and easy. Well-run peer networks provide an instant group of peers, which could take a lifetime to build independently. They also give leaders instant access to real-time business intelligence, thought leadership, and new ideas.
Peer Networking to Drive Business Results
How does the business benefit if you join an executive peer network? Six ways peer networks help you drive results:
- Accelerate Innovation: This is where real-time business intelligence is vitally important. Networks provide a way to accelerate information gathering, which in turn accelerates innovation capability. Research on innovation suggests that it is critical to have the ability to scan the horizon and have a broad set of “data points” to connect in order to achieve a breakthrough idea.
- You to the Power of 50 (y50): Peer networks expand on the concept articulated in the book The Wisdom of Crowds , by multiplying an executive’s experience and knowledge (even wisdom) by a factor of the number of peers in his/her network. If a typical executive has 25 years of experience, being a member of a network with 50 peers amplifies this experience and knowledge by 50--producing 1250 years of collective intelligence.
- Stay Current and Avoid Pitfalls: Peer networks provide members with timely knowledge about best/next practices. And equally important are insights into “worst practices” or “lessons learned.” Learning about failures from peers helps leaders avoid falling into the same traps of making the same mistakes. Most executives hide their mistakes, but a good peer network is a private and confidential forum for deep sharing among the members. The high-trust environment of peer networks allow executives to “let their hair down” and tell it like it is, even if the disclosures make them relive painful experiences and failures.
- Reduce Costs: Networks help members keep costs down--with less reliance on consultants and ready access to resources already vetted by others, and the knowledge to adopt best practices more quickly. For example, when the 2008 economic downturn hit with ferocity, I saw the members in a peer network quickly exchanging ideas on how to cut costs, especially without employee layoffs. I’ve also seen members of a chief talent officer network comparing notes on how to best structure and deal with the inherent cost issues related to global mobility programs.
- Improve Individual Effectiveness: Once someone attains a certain level within an organization, continuous development is difficult because of the incredible demands and pressure to deliver and perform. Peer networks provide members with an oasis from that pressure cooker environment where executives can spend some quality time on their own personal and professional development. In-person network meetings may be the best place for this development and rejuvenation to take place, but even a 30-minute listen-only teleconference with a book author can be a valuable way to learn something new and have a respite from the day’s pressures.
- Advance Your Field: At first blush, this appears to be an unintended benefit--the idea that peer networks can pool members’ intellectual range and resources in a way that addresses important challenges in the field. But in reality, who better to work toward the advancement of a field or domain area than what we call “practitioner-thinkers.” Our experience suggests that most executives, if given the space, time, and supportive environment, can come together to think about the future and even co-create the future.
It’s true that the road for senior executives often seems steeper and narrower. It’s easy to become more isolated and separated just when you need more connections, more feedback, and more trusted information--especially from outside your organization. Finding and being active in a peer network offers a highly effective and efficient option for upping your game and building deeper networking acumen.
Mike Dulworth is the CEO of Executive Networks  and author of the book The Connect Effect: Building Strong Personal, Professional, and Virtual Networks .
[Image: Flickr user Pedro Moura Pinheiro ]