When I was a law student in the late 1990s and trying to launch my career, I became acutely aware of gaping holes in my network. Namely, a lack of contacts within and connections to the education sector in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Now for most law students, a lack of education contacts matters little. But to me, as I sought to bring the legal skills I was developing to the complex realm of K-12 education, it mattered tremendously.
It took me months and months of outreach before I finally found a perfect foothold in education. When I was a third-year law student, the leaders at a (then-nascent) venture philanthropy firm, NewSchools Venture Fund, hired me in a part-time role.
At that time, it was relatively rare for someone with a non-education graduate degree to pursue an education career (though I had been a teacher for two years prior to law school). I felt like a true outsider until I met the leaders at NewSchools who valued "hybrid" leaders--those able to cross the public, nonprofit, and business sectors.
As I got to know the entrepreneurial organizations within the NewSchools' portfolio and community, I began to build my network of friends and colleagues in the field. I also found my dream job in education after law school at Aspire Public Schools, following an introduction from NewSchools.
I'm grateful for the struggle, though. It helped me see the need and potential for Education Pioneers. I wanted to ensure that our nation's most promising and talented professionals with diverse backgrounds and skill sets would have a way into the education sector--and support through their transition and career--to make a difference in the lives of underserved students, families, and communities.
(I'm also thrilled that NewSchools recently selected Education Pioneers as one of the Diverse Leaders ventures it's backing to change the face of education leadership through our Visiting Fellows program that identifies, supports, and retains rising leaders who are already working in education full-time.)
The lesson I learned as I found my way to my career was the importance of a network mindset. While I had many advantages when I started my quest to find a challenging and rewarding role in education, I didn't have anyone to help me navigate my path into the sector, to introduce me to leaders and organizations creating positive change in the field, or to teach me the ins-and-outs of the sector.
And that was a sizable disadvantage.
When we build our network and turn to it for insights and expertise, we start to tap into powerful leadership practices.
In analyzing research on next-generation leadership, along with anecdotal evidence from our alumni, Education Pioneers found five underlying traits that together define what we call a "master of complexity"--that is, "a leader at any level within an education organization who ensures academic success for all students."
Our fourth finding in the report, "Masters of Complexity: Leading Effectively in Public Education," has everything to do with the network:
"To thrive in and maximize impact in a multifaceted environment, masters of complexity actively use their professional and personal networks as a resource and share what they learn. In education, that means looking for members from business, law, and other industries, where fresh or diverse perspectives can lend new insights, and then bringing those insights to the organization."
In the EP Fellowship, we bring together professionals from diverse personal and professional backgrounds on purpose. We know that convening people with a wide range of perspectives, insights, and ideas will yield richer results and better solutions to seemingly intractable problems in education.
Working with a diverse group of peers also helps our Fellows grow as leaders. Post-Fellowship, EP Alumni are significantly more likely than not to attribute their professional successes to EP.
Here's the thing: using your network successfully is about far more than just assembling a group of people you can contact when you're looking for your next job. Instead, your network should be a critical sounding and listening board.
When you build your network right, you have access to diverse perspectives, experiences, and insights--the stuff that's gold when you're wrestling with tough challenges.
And as a contributing member of the group, you can offer your own ideas and viewpoints to help others move their work forward. The give-and-take is critical and defines the network experience. It also enables you to build deep and trusting relationships that can nourish and sustain you during the tough times that inevitably come when you're pioneering creative solutions to address difficult challenges.
Is strengthening your "network mindset" one of your top priorities? It should be. In my next post, I'll tackle ways to strengthen your network and network mindset.
In the spirit of tapping into the wisdom of my network and the broader Education Pioneers network, I'd welcome any ideas or insights you'd like me to consider sharing! Please leave a comment below this blog or tweet your ideas to me and include #NetworkMindset.