Network = Net Worth

Networks are vital to our growth, but they shouldn't be static or ever-growing. Fred Ende explains why networks that change are more valuable.

5 min read

EducationEducational Leadership

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Over the last two years, we have come to a number of important realizations. Some of those realizations have been about life itself, while others have taught us a lesson or two about leadership in our professional lives.

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We can never discount lessons learned. After all, those lessons, when we abide by them, help us to grow as people and, in turn, hopefully allow us to pay it forward and make life better for others.

One key lesson I’ve learned throughout the pandemic has been that the networks we build are akin to the value within our lives. There is no way I would be able to make it, personally or professionally, through the pandemic without the networks I rely on. I also have learned quite a bit about how to keep those networks vibrant (or not so); I found new friends and colleagues throughout the pandemic, and I lost a bunch too. 

While I’m not an expert in building networks or keeping them whole, I have come to rely on a few ideas that have let me keep my networks rich, and therefore, make my life richer.

Recognize the value of a network

Pre-pandemic, there were many a situation where I believed that part of building strong networks was about proving what I brought to the table. I tried, likely too hard, to show that I was not only competent, but also knowledgeable enough to answer any question and solve any problem. Of course, that was not only untrue, but also impossible. 

I’ve learned that networks are more about what we do as a collective than what any one person does. For example, we’ve worked hard to create a collaborative department where we all know enough about each other’s programs to support each other when needed. Only a few weeks ago, this idea was successfully put to the test. Our high school literacy conference, running virtually this year, ran into a number of technology snags. The entire department jumped into action, supporting our literacy lead in making the event so successful that students didn’t even realize we had run into trouble. Because everyone knew the basics of the program, and because we saw that our network was only as good as any problem that befell any of us, we did what we wouldn’t have been able to do if the literacy lead felt it was her responsibility to be the sole problem-solver.

Respect Dunbar’s number

Robin Dunbar is known for having spent much time determining sustained connections across networks. According to Dunbar’s work, we can only hold 150 connections at a given time. Those 150 connections are not all equal; we can build roughly five loving relationships, 15 really close confidantes, 50 friends, and 150 people we know well. 

This is important, because networks aren’t just about growth. They are also about sustaining and, when needed, changing. 

In the last two years alone, I’ve lost a few really great friends and gained a few new close confidantes. While we can mourn the breakdown of relationships, we can also celebrate new ones. The simple fact is we can’t keep adding to our networks; our time, ability to focus and life in general requires that we give up some connections so others can form. Therefore, rather than thinking constant network growth is the best way, respect Dunbar’s number and welcome the fluidity that is natural.

Know when to cash out, when to cash in

We often don’t want to believe it, but relationships are transactional. That doesn’t mean they have to be manipulative. 

Networks exist because we all need support from each other. As an example, I turn to one critical group of friends for listening for ideas, venting and sharing problems that need solving. Another group serves as a focused learning network, where I engage to build my skills as a professional. Still another group is about letting my guard down and being my best (and worst) self as I need to. 

Different people in each of these networks that I belong to may be in these groups for different purposes. And, at different times, we can choose to lean on others or be the other who people lean on. This give-and-take is what allows networks to be so valuable. The goal for all of us is to balance the cashing in and cashing out in such a way that we never put too much weight on others and we never take on too much weight alone.

These three ideas are foundational to understanding the net worth of networks. The key, of course, is recognizing that networks are basically like living and breathing things. They grow, change and contract as conditions change. This impacts the individual emotions of network members and the overall emotions of the network as a whole. Therefore, we have to take care of them, recognize when they need to be changed and understand that they are finite. Just as they won’t always grow, they also won’t always shrink. 

Truly, the net worth of networks is what the collective invests in them, and that lesson has helped me become more respectful and more grateful for their existence.

Fred Ende is the director of curriculum and instructional services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred currently blogs for SmartBrief Education, and his two books, Professional Development That Sticks and Forces of Influence, are available from ASCD. Connect with Fred on his website or on Twitter.


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