Andrea Learned

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To Weave Sustainability Social Capital, Connect First

weaveBusiness culture is in the middle of an important transformation. Much more than has traditionally been the case, warmth and empathy are starting to get their due in the leadership sphere, So, what do we make of this move toward connecting? It seems to be about empathy. And, the roots of human empathy run deep (see – mirror neurons and phantom limbs).  Many leading sustainability-focused professionals and corporations  today (Patagonia and Interface, to name two) are leading exactly because they have allowed themselves to go with that empathetic , connecting flow. They know how to weave, then leverage, social capital. You should know how, too.

“Connect, Then Lead,”  a recent Harvard Business Review piece by Amy J.C. Cuddy, Matthew Kohut and John Neffinger, explains the basic concept well.  In that piece ( worth the read), the authors cite two primary dimensions of social judgment:  how loveable a person is (warmth) and how fearsome a person is (strength).  They then write:

“A growing body of research suggests that the way to influence—and to lead—is to begin with warmth. Warmth is the conduit of influence: It facilitates trust and the communication and absorption of ideas.”

From what I’ve experienced, both in person and through social media channels, sustainable business proponents have been using the “connect first” rule for several years now. Our passion and values have organically steered us toward greater and deeper personal interconnection in order to get this crucial work moving and the culture shifting. In the process, we have developed a community that is a safe space from which to simply connect with one another, no questions asked.  We seem to have sensed that great business transactions, partnerships and collaborations will eventually and naturally occur from within that community fabric.  The time we spend building social capital is worth it.

You can see such interconnecting evidenced in the fact that organizations like The Sustainability Consortium even exist. Or, consider the incredible cross-industry learning and sharing that happens at conferences like Sustainable Brands. And, what about the exciting ways corporations are now partnering with what would formerly have been considered odd bedfellows, NGOs and nonprofits (such as related to water scarcity issues). Within both the public and less public collaborations like these, trust can be built or exponentially strengthened through social network connecting. Take a look at the Twitter feeds of folks like Campbell Soup’s Dave Stangis or Tim Mohin from AMD, for instance, to see two great examples of accessible and generous corporate sustainability leadership. Their followers are cross-disciplinary and cross-industry, and they all gain from what Dave and Tim make time to share. Who knows what sustainability innovations and idea sharing have emerged from all of that social capital!

Quite simply, the emerging emphasis on this sort of connecting as a foundational step is a business revolution.  And, it is amplified exponentially, through the use of social media.

Take another look at the title of that HBR piece, “Connect, Then Lead,” and recall the two dimensions of social judgment it mentions: warmth and strength.  It is not one quality versus the other, but a suggestion of how the combination of the two should be phased. Tend first to the warmth – and the strength will follow. Invest in social capital, and watch your collective influence and power expand.

By looking at it this way – and leveraging social media, especially – you create a foundation of human interactions and engagement . You build trust. In due time, your leadership will have an incredibly powerful source of energy from which to emerge.  Social capital is the Kevlar fabric of trusted relationships that supports you as you learn from one another’s mistakes, begin to make better decisions and start to spread the word about your sustainability efforts – and how they interweave with the efforts of others.

Consider who influences you, and how that came to be. It had to be about more than the occasional industry conference or email discussion. Instead, your influencers have likely become that through sustained interactions that provide true value and meaning in both your personal and work lives.

Leadership begins with, and is revealed through, warmth and connection.  It may seem like a whole new world, but the sustainability leaders using social media today are, absolutely, the business case for why it is worth developing this form of social capital. And, helping clients do this has grown to be my passion.

“Warmth is the conduit of influence”

To borrow the words of Cuddy, Kohut and Neffinger, in sustainability, social capital is the conduit of influence. It facilitates trust and the communication and absorption of new ideas that will change our world for the better. How can you not want to add your threads to that fabric?