Some people just seem to have a gift for connecting people and ideas. They seem to know people in all sorts of industries, with varying interests, and they’re able to ‘connect the dots’ between people and ideas and bring them together. They are ‘connectors.’
Malcolm Gladwell describes this type of person in his book, ‘The Tipping Point’, where he explains why certain ideas become social epidemics, or go viral, and others don’t. Gladwell believes that to have any idea grow and take on a life of its own, it takes three kinds of people: a Connector, a Maven and a Salesman. But, its the connector who really gets the idea moving and helps it expand.
The Connector, according to Gladwell, is a person who is able to make connections between what seem to be very different and disparate people and ideas. They are the ones who seem to know everyone, and are always trying to connect people and their ideas. Connectors, according to Gladwell, have an extraordinary knack for making friends and acquaintances. They are then able to use these relationships and grow and connect people to each other.
As I’ve written about in the past, influence is the currency of leadership, and to be effective, you must have the ability to influence those you lead. While leadership is both an art and a science, and can be complex to describe, I indicated there were four basic skills you need to improve your influence:
- Relationship Building
While communication is a foundational skill, it’s connection that will allow you to grow your influence and expand ideas.
Connection, as Gladwell described, is the ability to bring people together, and grow a network of people that have relationships in common. By having a larger network, you are able to tap into a much broader set of opinions and experiences than you would otherwise. In other words, the more people you know, the more you are likely to learn new things that you can bring to your leadership toolbox.
However, connection also refers to your ability to connect seemingly different ideas and viewpoints. Being able to see or hear one idea, and then connect it to another is truly a unique skill. One such connector was Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.
During one of the most interesting TED Talks, Bezos described how the addition of electricity to homes was for one single purpose; to power the newly invented light bulb. A large infrastructure was created just around light, and there was no other thought for what was available.
In fact, the electrical outlet as we know it wasn’t invented until much later, and really came about because some were able to make the connection between the infrastructure that was installed in homes to power lights, and the ability to power other tasks that were previously manual. The idea of the electrical appliance came about because some were able to ‘connect the dots’ between two distinct problems.
If making connections with people and with ideas are a key skill, the obvious question that comes up is whether this is a learned skill, or a natural one. While I do believe that some people’s personalities are just more inclined toward making connections with people, it can be learned and practiced. But, the ability to connect ideas is a much tougher one to learn. There seems to be a subset of people who have the ability to see things in ways other don’t, and make connections in their minds that eventually lead to new breakthroughs.
However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways you can make yourself more adept at making connections. Here are some things you can do to practice and grow these skills.
Make Better People Connections
- Be Purposeful. If you want to grow your network, you must make it a priority. You must make an effort to know more people, and that only comes from practice. Set some goals to meet someone new each week. Make lunch plans with someone new at the office and learn all you can about them.
- Be Interested. If small talk doesn’t come easy to you, make a list of questions before you meet with someone new. These should be questions that get the person talking about themselves, and shouldn’t just be about work. Ask them about the things that usually matter most to them; their families, hobbies and interests, and you will have a great conversation going before you know it.
- Be Generous. As you get to know someone, one of the most important skills I have learned is to try and introduce them to someone else I already know. As you learn about them, you are going to find out that they have something in common with someone you already know. Don’t let that opportunity pass by. Offer to introduce them to the person that has something in common, and follow through. Once you’ve introduced the two, you’ve just become a Connector!
Make Better Idea Connections
- Ask How? To make connections between ideas, you have to be inquisitive. Be interested in what you are hearing, and learn enough detail that you start to understand how something you’ve heard in the past might connect with what you are hearing now. Curiosity is the first step.
- Ask Why? Without a good understanding for why something works the way it does, you are stuck with a surface idea, and connections are harder to make. Ask questions as you learn new things, and focus on the why.
- Ask What If? We are taught from an early age to focus on learning by being taught in the didactic method. Essentially, our learning is focused solely on the teacher teaching, and the student learning, and the goal is capture of knowledge. However, we aren’t as good at experiential learning (Socratic Method), where the value of asking questions, learning from each other and drawing out new ideas is a priority. Asking “what if?’ is the beginning of being a connector of ideas.
- Be a reader. There is an old phrase that says ‘leaders are readers.” Why? Those who read constantly learn new information, and gain new perspectives. Reading trade journals, industry-focused books and other non-fiction help broaden your thought process. It also helps expand your ‘connection’ skills by charging the brain to be on the lookout for new ideas. But non-fiction isn’t the only way to learn; good fiction helps relieve your mind of stress and become more imaginative.
Ultimately, your ability to influence through connections comes from your ability to bring people together, and also your ability to bring the ideas of these people together as well. Many of the great breakthroughs in life come from challenging what you already know, and putting new combinations of ideas together. And, as a leader, when you can energize people together to solve big problems for the good of the organization or team, you’ve accomplished what you were asked to do.