Positioning Yourself for Successful Learning Leadership Series Part Four

Tracy Cox

Part Four: The Importance of Social Capital in Learning Leadership

Read Part One of the Learning Leadership Series.

Read Part Two of the Learning Leadership Series.

Read Part Three of the Learning Leadership Series.

Learning Leaders Must Cultivate Relationships and Build Trust

So, what is social capital and why is it important to a new learning leader? In Brokerage and Closure: An Introduction to Social Capital, Ron Burt defines it as the advantage created by a person’s location in a structure of relationships. It is the contextual complement to human capital in explaining advantage. As business organizations become more global, flatter, more matrixed (horizontal functions and vertical businesses) and more fragmented due to an increase in mergers and acquisitions, there is more reliance on the informal structures as opposed to the formal organizational charts. Thus, one’s ability to get things done is far more dependent on the informal networks of which they are a part. The currency of exchange in this informal world is trust and reputation. Thus, a new learning leader must navigate this informal world via trust and reputation to build partnerships, relationships and support. It is very often the case that a learning leader is placed structurally in the organization to best influence without authority. Without direct reporting relationships, the new learning leader is left to build support and alliances through trust and reputation. Thus enters value. The primary way to build this trust and reputation is through providing value to stakeholders positively impacting their personal goals and objectives.

Social Capital is a Necessity in Successful Learning Leadership

As further evidence of the importance of social capital to new learning leaders let’s first think about the organizational position and experience of learning leaders. Most are mid-career, positioned at mid to upper level management (one to two levels below the CEO) and have 10+ years of experience based on our survey demographics of 122 global learning leaders. So, not surprisingly, when asked for the number one tip for a new learning leader in early career, the top "vote getter" was: learning the business. However, when this same question is asked for a mid to late-career new learning leader, the answer flips to: establishing business relationships. The message being sent loud and clear is this: Early in your career, your value is determined by what you know. But, mid-career and at mid to upper-levels of leadership, this flips entirely to who you know.

As an individual contributor, it is probably true that your performance evaluations were largely determined based on your individual knowledge, ability and talent. But as a mid to upper-level leader, your performance evaluation is largely based on your ability to find the right people quickly to solve problems, coordinate effort and bring innovation and creative problem solving to the party. The primary technique to develop social capital when you are new to the role is called strategic partnership. This is the strategy of "borrowing the social capital" of a key network entrepreneur to gain entry into informal "silos" for the sake of adding value. When asked about this critical success factor, one of the learning leaders said, "Get to know the key influencers, ask good questions, listen and take notes. Ask how you can help with their most critical and problematic human capital need. Develop a plan, get buy in, and then execute. Debrief when the initiative is complete. Show them you are ‘for real.’"

First published on Human Resources IQ.