Have you waded into the shallow network

Have you ever met one of the good ole boys? Of course, we are not talking about one of the Duke brothers from Hazzard. Instead, a member of a shallow professional network known as the good ole boy network (GOB). These group members ride on the advantageous side of some relationship imbalance within the power dynamics within the organization.

The definition of a good ole boy network almost sounds innocent. The definition shares a group of people with similar social and educational, used to benefit each other in business matters. It is essential to call out that, most often, the group is men. For many, it is an old trend, or something observed early in a person’s career. Posing the question, do GOBs still exist?

Nothing is more impactful to careers within an organization than a GOB. The people who fall under these organizations constantly fight against an inconsistent measuring stick with goals that consistently move up and down. Like all things business, the GOB has evolved. The evolution is in identifying the GOB and the outcomes from these changes. Unfortunately, these shallow networks still go unnoticed.

Why Shallow network?

It is the lack of depth that is consistent within all GOB. The lack of diversity is one of the first signs. It is not just the diversity that team members see but everything underlying. The like-mindedness weakens the ability to view all sides of problems properly and dilutes the culture. Experience and skills become less tangible and less valuable. As leaders promote lacking tangible skills, so does their ability to teach them. It is hard for leaders to appreciate a skill they need help understanding. Last to go is usually education. As decisions become completely imbalanced, credibility is low on the list when decisions are made. Everyone knows the saying, “it’s not about what you know, but who you know.”

Identifying the GOB

It is more than the traditional old-school social group, the fellas that all went to school or church together. Most organizations have grown past their senior leadership teams full of men who all look alike. Fiduciaries must understand how to identify these shallow networks based on their evolution. When formed and unaddressed, they will slowly dissolve the culture from within.

The shallow network of over-index has become one of the most common in today’s workforce. More specifically, a team that is built based on previous performance standards. The old performer’s group may be leaders that achieved top performance in a role prior but still need to work on delivering similar results in their new role. When stakeholders make hiring decisions and lack experience and tangible skills, their go-to is looking for similar traits. Those similar traits may be past performance. It is important to remember that previous performance is only sometimes an indicator of future success.

Look out for the shallow group coming together from an outside company or previous long-standing organization. Loyalty within these groups is often priority number one. The group traditionally focuses more on strange power dynamics and is easily swayed by priorities. The team is often hard to join as it is full of insiders. The leaders of these groups will focus more on protecting their team members than offering them feedback that would make them more productive team members. Be careful how rehearsed this team can be and how well they tuck skeletons away.

Generational dilution is a widespread shallow group within organizations. This is especially true for large organizations that have gone through a lot of change over a short period. This group occurs in two different ways. The first appears as a leader’s experience, skills, and education diminish due to poor standards and compliance. The other is when people are inserted into promoted roles without using a hiring process, making it easy for things to slip through. Often these leaders are quickly inherited due to change, the new leader none the wiser. Teams may find themselves reacting slowly and having to work through previous challenges.

Mindful markers in organizational leadership

An important consideration is that not all of these networks and groups are formed maliciously or with direct intent. However, it will not change their negative influence and often inability to perform consistently. It is not just about calling out the potential outcomes; there are markers and additional evidence of a shallow network. A foundational part of the shallow network is the need for more experience and tangible skills. Many organizations need consistent ways to establish and measure the effectiveness of essential skills.

Performance has slowly declined or needs to improve. Shallow networks struggle to work beyond the previous leaders’ worn-out tactics or established routines. Often these tactics are heavily focused on high-energy schtick incentives, and the pace can be challenging to maintain. As the business changes and shallow team members face new performance problems, the solution will often sound the same, as will the lack of execution and improvement. No plan ever seems to work, and often it is because no strategy can stick. Leaders need the ability to transition past setting expectations.

Unfortunately, leadership will fail to inspire, teach, and consistently inspect. Authentic engagement in the business will not extend beyond whatever hit list is currently used to check in with leaders, and these leaders are working to check things off the list in hopes it will cover their tails. Another classic sign is the leaders who constantly lean on the authority of the leaders above them to justify their decision-making; this is incredibly dangerous as it is often used to cover ethical issues. It also can allow for the most ridiculous of behavior, and an example would be a leader coaching employees on parking in spots perceived for those with more prominent titles. The odd fealty is probably one of the easiest ways to observe the shallowness of the network.

The shallow network erodes culture

There can never be a true identity to a shallow network. It will lack the reliability and validity needed to drive execution. The GOB runs heavily on charisma. They have to “be fired up.” Skill recognition in an organization is critical. A leader cannot lack technical ability and understanding, along with organizational skills, and run a department that requires it, even if the leader is one of your most tenured and loyal. Leaders need to understand the value of skills and take inventory of what is required versus what they have. When these steps are overlooked for too long, skills quickly become misaligned, and the work surrounding them becomes chaos.

Culture is defined as a collective way of acting as a group. This calls out the importance of the example that is set. Shallow networks traditionally create what they present, meaning sub shallow networks throughout the organization. When unchecked, this behavior can carry on generations of leaders in one location. The chain effect is because it becomes the way for team members to become safe and have some hope for career growth.

One of the most surefire ways to create this environment is by installing leaders bypassing traditional processes. This behavior is damaging from all sides of the decision. The installed leader will always struggle with credibility and imposter syndrome, and likely with the day-to-day role itself. The team members on deck for this role will struggle with the decision, all efforts to convince them of fair career opportunities will fall on deaf ears, and it would be unfair to expect less. Is it loyalty you want? That topic was covered above.

Focus in

Selection: Take selection in the organization very seriously. Consider the potential circles and what level it would take to have true objectivity. Don’t let that last interview with the VP be another checkmark on the list. Have questions, and make sure an objective HR partner is present. Extreme caution on hiring senior leaders from within the ranks they will take over. It has a high potential for skill erosion and creates divides within mid-management. These senior leaders also often feel they must have loyalty to the leader who promoted them above all else. Development programs and other opportunities should be another consideration. It is essential to have a robust set of objective measures. The more subjective, the more likely it will support an activity that leads to a shallow network.

Note: Be sure to review recognition programs. What is being recognized, and can it be replicated to build on the business? If a nomination process, how many times are the least nominations selected, is the process rigged?

Evaluation: Most organizations utilize some form of performance management. Often some tools can help leaders with observation and inspection. A critical step to support evaluation is the skip level. Leaders must hear it themselves and make this a non-negotiable within their process and cycle. It’s the cycle that is important, and do all employees go through the process -what would be the strong case that someone is beyond a fair evaluation and a plan to continue to be an asset to an organization. Organizations need to adopt better ways to understand and inventory skills so that they can be associated with roles. Evaluating and developing will support what is foundational for success.

Note: Who is doing the work? Business moves fast, and leaders develop their own networks as they move around. Some leaders have a whole team supporting them. However, organizations must be mindful of who is doing the actual work. Sometimes the innovation is credited to the wrong person. It reinforces the importance of some skill dichotomy within the organization.

Communication: How does communication happen within the organization? There should be a communication plan and owner; priorities must be managed. Cadence is necessary to support the execution of what is being communicated. To ensure alignment, senior leaders should ask employees what has been communicated, goals, and priorities. When communication is delayed or does not arrive to all parties, it is a sign of a breakdown. Leaders’ time is often focused within their shallow network and not on the team they are responsible for.

Note: Narrative becomes a large part of what drives the culture. As many of the above injustices occur, the narrative becomes toxic and unproductive. It’s not about expelling but correcting -it may take time.

Checklist items

  • Which employees have followed a leader or been promoted by the same leader multiple times.
    • Have the skills evolved?
    • What is the reason this person seems to follow this particular leader?
    • Does this leader afford this experience to everyone that has reported to them?
  • Flip it: who has been turned down for a role the most times? What was the feedback they last received? Is someone supporting and mentoring them now?
  • Is education a priority within your organization. When looking into anyone’s location, are leaders working towards secondary education?
  • What daily goal-setting methodology is being utilized? Is the approach consistent? A tenet of performance is consistency.
  • What does the environment say? Observe where leaders congregate or polarize around? Is it the top performer? Which leaders seem to be Outcasts, and why?
  • How has recognition been determined? What do the nominations look like?
  • How do the leaders in your organization identify with acumen? Can they define it?
  • Who is next in line for leadership roles, why, or what criteria do they meet.
  • What does people planning within your organization look like, how is it represented, what are the tangible goals, and how do they support sustainability?

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