Are you a Super-Connector?Feb 08, 2022
Johan was an ex submarine commander working in Human Resources in IBM, Copenhagen. Well, I say he worked in HR. I wasn’t exactly sure what he did.
To me, it seemed his job description was to wander around departments and check out whether everybody was feeling OK. He did this with style. Although he was Danish, there was an old-school English-gentleman thing about him. He would use flowery and somewhat arcane language, treat women with something best-described as charming civility, and laugh and joke with everybody.
But what he did other than that, I really wasn’t sure.
I was working as a corporate training freelancer in those days. IBM was a client of one of the agents I worked for. Johan had been to a couple of my courses and we’d got on well. But I was still none the wiser as to his actual job.
Then, one day, I was called into his office. I was a little worried and wondering if I’d done something wrong.
I soon found out it wasn’t me that was in trouble. Johan’s boss, the HR Director, had been getting increasingly irritated with the agent I worked for trying to (a) drum up new business at IBM and (b) pushing a different trainer on him (who worked for a lower rate than I did). The phone calls were pretty constant, it seemed. As a result, they’d decided to get rid of the agent, but really wanted to keep me. They asked if I’d consider joining IBM to run the soft communications training program at the end of the contract service agreement.
I was flattered and said yes, only for economic realities to hit home. IBM went into a hiring freeze later in the year, meaning they could only hire to replace departing core workers. My job was going to be a newly created one and thus fell outside that remit. They could no longer hire me!
They did, however, have a solution. They asked if I would consider starting my own business and contract to them. That they were still allowed to pay for (ironic, as it was going to cost them 3x as much). So, I did.
And that’s when I found out what Johan did. He made things happen.
Firstly, he told me that they had to go to tender because procurement would demand it. IBM, at least in those days, would nearly always go with the lowest bidder. He gave me a range of prices that would be competitive. He told me that if I priced courses within that range, I’d get the contract. And I did.
Why? That’s the second thing he did.
Because he knew everybody and was so well liked, he walked around the departments to find out what everybody needed so I could inject it all into my course profiles. They gave him and me gold. That process provided HR with the ammunition to reject any provider that failed to cover every department’s needs and me with the data to further customise my courses to IBM’s demands.
To cut a long story short, I got the contract and happily ran IBM’s soft communications training for over five years.
But this article isn’t about me. It’s about Johan. Or, rather, what Johan represents.
Johan was a super-connector.
Super-connectors are the people in organisations who know what is going on everywhere. They pay no attention to silos, crossing domain boundaries with ease and dexterity. Well-liked and well-informed, they are the people you turn to for help when some intractably wicked problems start causing you headaches.
Super-connectors give of themselves, are interested in everything and everybody, and love telling and listening to stories. That’s not work, you say, that’s socialising. Please read on and you’ll discover real value in these capabilities.
Super-connectors might not know how to help you. But they’ll damn sure connect you with people who can. And not just connect you, but connect you in a way that means they’ll want to help you too.
How do they do that?
Very simply, because the person helping you had already been helped by somebody else they had connected him with. It was now give back time.
The Wharton organizational psychologist, Adam Grant, calls this element of super-connecting “giving”.
A giver is somebody who gives of his or herself with no thought of receiving anything in return. Grant argues that 25% of people in organisations are givers. In contrast, 19% of people are takers and 56% of people are matchers - meaning that if you give they’ll give in return, but if you take they’ll also take from you.
Johan was a giver, meaning that 81% of the organisation was going to give back to him in return. That’s a vital component of super-connecting. Without it, you are just running around talking. With it, you create real value. You connect people who can and do make things happen.
While some givers go on to be the highest performing people in all the organisations Grant has examined (and it’s a lot!), other givers actually don’t do very well in organisational life. Indeed, they are perceived as the lowest performers. They spend so much time helping others succeed that their own KPIs suffer. When a company downsizes, they are the first to be shown the door.
The outcome of walking them out of the office with their brown box full of personal items is not, however, what the company hopes for. With givers gone, everybody’s performance suffers. They no longer get the help and support of givers and instead work with matchers (or, worse, takers!). That means everything becomes give and take (or worse, take, take, take - yes, if the organisation is dominated by takers, matchers respond by taking too, thereby destroying collaboration and connection).
If you get rid of your super-connectors, even the “low performing ones”, the glue of giving without expectation stops sticking things together. Over time, the organisation suffers, potentially catastrophically, as all efforts for collaboration, vital in today’s complex working environment, get undermined by organisational terrorists.
The super-connector also creates value through what Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin call neo-generalism. In their words, the neo-generalist:
defies easy classification. They are tricksters who traverse multiple domains, living between categories and labels. Encompassing rather than rejecting, the neo-generalist is both specialist and generalist. A restless multidisciplinarian, who is forever learning. They bring together diverse people, synthesising ideas and practice, addressing the big issues that confront us in order to shape a better future. They are curious, responsive, connective.
Johan was a prototype neo-generalist, living the concept before it was even a concept. He was interested in everybody and everything. He was equally at home explaining the history of the Danish Lutheran church and the origins of Jantelov as he was talking about commanding a submarine, critiquing HR theory, pushing forward new psychological practices into the company, and examining the blockages in delivery and fulfilment processes.
You could spend hours in his company and not actually get any “work” done, being enthralled by his stories and ideas.
He was most definitely a trickster - in conversations with him nothing seemed serious at first glance. His charm and easy laugh were completely disarming. He would joke about everything. But it was underpinned by a deep search for connection and meaning.
Through Johan, you could quickly find out exactly who could help you with a specific problem because he’d had similar conversations with people all over the company and was authentically interested in what they did, to the extent he knew who could help you and how they could help you in a very generalised sense.
But it was more than that.
Johan was catalytic. He could draw different strands of seemingly unconnected information together and pull them together into something meaningful. For example, he drew together the irritation of his HR Director from having too many phone calls, his desire for customised training opportunities for his colleagues and a young British guy who entertained him in class into meaningful training and business opportunities that served 100s of people for many years.
He was also kairotic. Johan’s time wasn’t measured by seconds or minutes passing, but in the quality of the experience had. Johan wanted, in Dead Poets’ parlance, to “suck the marrow out of life”. Every conversation with him was an adventure, taking you soaring and diving across the realms of possibility. But never without purpose. With Johan, something meaningful could emerge at any moment - a new as-yet-unseen opportunity that his neo-generalist expertise seemingly plucked out of thin air.
Johan’s ability to make stuff happen easily and effectively came out of a lifetime of experience that enabled him to see connections others couldn’t see. To be able to do that, you have to be informed by deep and broad ideas, authentically interested in the people you meet, and curious about how you can draw things together to create value.
The second reason is about stories. Or rather, the value of stories and how they get communicated.
Stefan Norrvall and I run a workshop that examines how people interpret organisations via the use of metaphor. We discovered that 90% of people see the organisation as a machine and 75% as a culture (the paradoxical tension of having these two metaphors fighting for dominance in one’s organisation and head is something I’ll go into another time).
- The machine metaphor sees the workers in terms of wheels and cogs - insensible moving parts that management designed and engineered, kept working, and got rid of when they broke.
- The culture metaphors sees workers as psychologically fitting with the culture, drawn to the values, rules and rituals that define the culture and happy to live them.
Johan didn’t see organisation in those terms. He saw organisation as an exercise in sensemaking. Rather than insensible cogs or obedient cultural dupes, for Johan, employees were thinking, socialising, and, importantly, sensemaking elements of the organisation.
They lived it, breathed it and told stories about it. Oftentimes, these stories were good ones, with employees happy about their work and colleagues. These good stories provided a sense of general well-being in the company - nothing serious was wrong and people were working hard and contentedly.
But sometimes things shifted. Watercooler stories took on a darker hue in some corners of the organisation. Pockets of discontent were springing up. Something, somewhere was happening.
As a super-connector, Johan would quickly pick up on these stories and establish whether there was a pattern to them. If there was, he had the ability to map out the stories and discover where the causal pain point was - the generative source of the discontent. He would then launch into a problem-solving exercise, gathering his many resources to draw senior executives attention to the problem and deliver some potential solutions.
If there were no super-connector in place, there would be no way to map out the stories and discover what needs to be fixed. Instead, the stories would remain hidden from management, darken into toxicity until workplace well-being suffered, bringing with it associated productivity challenges. Everything would look to be happening in isolation and the focus would start to be on the “bad apples” causing problems and telling these terrible stories rather than the actual source of the pain, which is likely to be a systemic issue rather than a people one.
Much organisational culture thinking today starts from the assumption that these stories are bad and can be eliminated by hiring the right people for the company. They are not bad. They are inevitable. The idea that people are sensors that discover and spread vitally important data through storytelling is threatening to managers and HR because of their narrow focus on machine and culture views of organisation. They don’t understand the value through such frames.
The super-connector, that valuable sensemaking hub of storytelling, gets seen as a danger and is expelled from the organisation, thereby ensuring bad stories get hidden from sight until they explode into toxic hell.
Super-Connection as Value Creation
Johan retired a few years into my contract. I later discovered during a chat with the HR Director that part of Johan’s reason for wanting me to take over the training was because my classes covered part of his super-connectivity. I took people from all parts of the organisation and put them into a room together, then educated and entertained them. The fun atmosphere and learning experience helped break down silos and help people know who knew what in the company and feel that they could go to them in times of need.
The HR Director told me that he felt that the cross-disciplinary networking element of my courses (a side-effect rather than a feature) was the most valuable thing I provided to IBM. Knowing the value of his super-connectivity, Johan had implemented a way to keep it going in his absence.
My classes were, however, just a shadow of Johan’s value.
Super-connectors are absolutely vital for today’s organisations. Unfortunately, they are completely undervalued, to the extent that they would rarely even be give an interview in many companies.
As mentioned earlier, KPIs, that standardised way of measuring worker value, do not allow for super-connection. They narrowly focus on the performance of a single individual as defined by formal description, not the person’s performance in context. In today’s interconnected complexity of work, it is next to impossible to isolate performance to the granular, individualised level of a KPI. Everything happens in dynamic context, impacting and being impacted by stuff that is going on elsewhere. A super-connector navigates this complexity for the benefit of all.
Super-connectors are vital for creative and innovative work. They are the people who take strands of thoughts from multiple domains, synthesise them and turn them into something novel. Without people capable of listening to, comprehending, sharing and combining such thoughts, creativity and innovation hit roadblock after roadblock.
In doing the above, they make specialists more valuable. A specialist who has no concept of how his work gets interpreted beyond his specialism can produce outputs that look completely stupid to the wider world. Why would you make it or do it like that? It makes no sense. A super-connector, knowing enough to talk to the specialist about his work and having developed trust, eliminates this risk by guiding the specialist down paths that aren’t so user-unfriendly to the outside world.
Super-connectors also help manage culture-systems problems. IBM Is a great example in this regard. IBM has a strong culture. A really strong culture. People massively identify with the organisation. While that can have value, it also comes replete with dangers of groupthink, conformity, keeping your head below the parapet, and fear of not fitting in. In systems terminology, it becomes a closed system, in danger of entropy or stasis. Nothing can be discussed other than that which is already being discussed.
By extending interest in people’s lives beyond the organisational walls, the super-connecter can tap into unexpected value. The admin officer might, in fact, be a hyper-creative short story writer. The engineer who hardly speaks might be working on an app he’s incredibly passionate about in his spare time. The manager who’s stressing about a project might be a genius with lego blocks.
The super-connector taps into all these external interests and makes them relevant to the day-to-day. He encourages people to bring their creative instincts into the office and that they can contribute to the cultural whole. By doing so, he helps inject emergence into the system, thereby protecting it from entropy. The fear, anxiety, stress, cynicism and sarcasm that accompany the decadence and decay stage of human cultural-systems get offset by new possibilities and novel ideas, generating renewed energy and motivations.
It’s vital to find ways of finding and hiring super-connectors in today’s increasingly complex workplaces. They are the glue that holds everything together. But we are stuck in a narrow understanding of work.
- Recruitment doesn’t know how to value this incredibly important skillset. Instead, it number crunches around the idea of specialism and culture-fit.
- Managers don’t know how to evaluate a super-connector. They don’t do what the KPIS say, therefore they aren’t valuable.
- The culture metaphors sees workers as psychologically fitting with the culture, drawn to the values, rules and rituals that define the culture and happy to live them.
It’s time we stopped thinking in such a limited way and understood the value of connectivity in complexity.
Johan was the best super-connector I’ve ever met. Hopefully, his story can help illustrate the value of such a person and encourage organisations to hire a few more of them.
Johan and I lost touch over the years. He’d be in his 80s now if he’s still alive. This blog is the best legacy I can provide for what he gave me and taught me. Thanks, Johan.