Steve Waddell on networks and cultivating “more leaderful change agents” in the sector

“You’re having people in the network who have integrated into their very way of thinking and acting the goals and values of those in the network that they can take independent activity and be comfortable that they’re acting in a way that’s in the interest of the whole network.”

waddell_350In his book Global Action Networks: Creating Our Future Together, Steve Waddell describes eight competencies essential for the success of social sector networks and leaders: knowledge, skills, and behaviors in leadership; network development; measuring impact; conflict and change; communications; learning systems; policy and advocacy; and resource mobilisation.

Waddell will lead WINGSForum 2014: The Power of Networks as keynote speaker. He is the founding Executive Director of Global Action Network Net (GAN-Net) and Leadership for Change (an executive management program at Boston College). Two key concepts are associated with Waddell’s work: “societal learning and change,” which is a deep change strategy to address chronic and complex issues; and global action networks, which are an emerging form of global governance that addresses issues requiring deep change.

WINGS Managing Editor Chris de la Torre met with Waddell in January to talk about the strategic importance of a global network like WINGS, and to learn about how individuals can become what Waddell calls “more leaderful change agents” in the sector.

WINGS: WINGS connects associations and support organisations serving philanthropy in more than 50 countries around the world. Together our members represent more than 20,000 grantmakers and social investors worldwide. In many ways, WINGS is the first network of its kind. From your experience, what are a few advantages and challenges of operating within a global network as large and complex as ours—specifically regarding transparency, communication, collaboration, and identity?

Steve Waddell: One thing that strikes me is, although you are diverse, a lot of networks are a lot more diverse—[meaning] you have one type of organisation: they’re all involved in philanthropy of some sort. You have a common interest in terms of organising around how to be effective at doing that. So I think one of the challenges always is that philanthropy in that sense is about a process, which networks are about as well, and most people are most motivated by issues rather than processes—[for instance] an issue of environmental sustainability or health care or education.

Philanthropy is a process of assembling money, creating programs, then figuring out how to allocate that in an efficient and effective way within some sort of management and outcome goals. One of the things is to be able to figure out how to connect that basic motivating force around issues with the greater process of philanthropy, so that people can organise around issues that are relevant to them and they feel that discussion is relevant to them, and that people have enough similar goals that they can spend productive time together.

One of the key things in a network is boundary setting. There are networks in the philanthropic world around international development and sub issues, which demonstrates that the philanthropic world itself is also interested in organising in that way. Boundary setting is about who to include and who to exclude in conversations. If the boundaries are too wide, people will not feel enough of a connection and the conversation won’t seem relevant. But if they’re too narrow it’ll seem like there’s no energy being developed, like nothing new that’s happening, so there isn’t really much value for people.

cover-gan-lrgWINGS: Your book, Global Action Networks: Creating Our Future Together, begins with a stark reminder of how “the old ways of doing things are not up to the global challenges we are facing.” We hear this a lot, especially in the context of wicked problems. How can we leverage the power of networks to combat these seemingly intractable issues? What are Global Action Networks (GANs) and why are they so important?

SW: It’s important to understand what type of network you have because different networks have different roles. Some are advocacy networks and therefore they’re usually made up of NGOs or nonprofit organisations that have a strong position on something such as an environmentalist network. And they therefore would be focused on trying to tell other people what to do and trying to convince them of how to change. Another type of network is a trade association network, bringing together people for learning and sharing. Setting standards is important for most trade association networks. So one thing is to understand what kind of network you have.

Global Action Networks (GANs) are very specific kind of networks that are focused on large or whole system change—transformation on a global level. They have integrated into their structure and the way they function the idea that you have to bring together stakeholders to work across traditional boundaries and divisions—most notably boundaries across government and business and NGOs or civil society. That type of collaborative action is necessary because we need the resources of all those different actors to be able to address these wicked problems, and we need all of them to change what they’re currently doing and think about how they can do it differently.

I emphasise that the Global Action Networks are actually a new type of organisation. Traditionally when I started working with them they would think of themselves as an odd intergovernmental organisation . Some of them were actually incorporated as intergovernmental organisations, like the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Or they would think of themselves as an odd NGO or a nonprofit organisation. Some of them even think of themselves as businesses in the social entrepreneurship way of having something to sell and something they are marketing, and they talk that language. What they found inspiring when I first started bringing them together is that they understood that they are actually an organisational innovation.

This type of network has not existed before. Before we’ve had business, government and civil society as the three main types of organisations, and Global Action Networks are focused upon how to weave together the energies and the capacities and resources of those different organisations, and to make them accountable to something that’s held as a greater good, and to do that collaboratively. So it’s a very different type of dynamic you’re trying to create in the network amongst its actors, its participants and members.

WINGS: You’re an expert on the topic of leadership in networks. What is your leadership approach for networks, and how can people change their behavior to become what you call “more leaderful change agents”?

SW: I always emphasise when you think about how to make a network more effective to think in terms of competencies. What does it have to do really well? What skills, talents does it have to have to function really well? I identify in the Global Action Network book eight competencies. Some of these are more important for different types of networks than others, but after a lot of testing they seem to be pretty generic across networks.

One of the confusing factors is that some of the competencies are labeled the same as they would be for organisations, such as leadership. So when people think of leadership they have a strong history particularly in North America and in the West of thinking of individuals as leaders. And in a network, it’s a very different perspective. It’s about how we can support the emergence of leaderful activity rather than be individual leaders. It’s about how we work together with others to create leaderful activity across the stakeholders we’re working with.

Often somebody who has a leadership position within a network has a diminished role in terms of the issues. They are always trying to refer to members of their networks as examples, so it’s not about them as the leader but about examples of how members got together to do something. It’s always about emphasising how people are acting as leaders within the network rather than having an individual associated with a key leadership function. You’re not depending upon having detailed strategic plans but you’re having people in the network who have integrated into their very way of thinking and acting the goals and values of those in the network that they can take independent activity and be comfortable that they’re acting in a way that’s in the interest of the whole network, and that they understand that the network will support them.

WINGS: In that way leadership seems to become an act rather than just an object.

SW: Absolutely. I always talk about leadership as an attribute at the individual level. So as an individual has a leadership role, so too there are leadership groups. You have leadership organisations or networks and you have societies which act like leaderful societies.

WINGS:  Why is it important for citizens to realise their power to master collective change, and how can the resulting mentality translate into more effective leadership?

SW: We have enough experience to know that although individuals have an important role in leadership action, that there’s a limited amount that an individual can do. You need to have widespread activity. When you’re dealing with wicked problems and changed goals it’s got to be a very dispersed activity because it involves such a wide group of people.

It’s not about focusing on one person as a leader but a person who is leaderful who is creating leadership activity amongst others, because they’ve got to have the capacity and power to be able to act toward the change goal as well. We can’t all be order takers. It’s a real shift to being able to act as a partner across issues.


Road to Istanbul—A journey through networked philanthropy charts the course of global philanthropy over the weeks leading up to WINGS Forum 2014: The Power of Networks. Follow on Twitter with #WFnetworks. For event details and to register, visit the WINGS Forum website. More WINGS interviews here.

One thought on “Steve Waddell on networks and cultivating “more leaderful change agents” in the sector

  1. Pingback: WINGSForum registration now closed | Philanthropy In Focus

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