Shared Wisdom for Successfully Leading Organizations

Three types of networks a new CEO should consider

Networks, both formal and informal, will help meet different needs, and you will find that having a collection of people whose talents and ideas you can count on will prove invaluable. The actual networks that will work best for you depend on the needs of your organization, your current skills, and the missing experience.

Here are three types you may want to consider

1. Kitchen cabinet

A “kitchen cabinet” refers to an informal list of people who are called on to offer perspective and good counsel on strategy, tactics, personal growth, acquisition of critical skill sets, and problem-solving. Some of them may be friends, mentors, or family while others may be relative strangers, but each has something to offer and a willingness to offer it.

Your kitchen cabinet can be set up in a formal, highly structured way with three to five people who meet (potentially over dinner or breakfast) once a month or every couple of months. This type of cabinet works best when everyone around the table has an interest in learning from each other. It requires openness, a willingness to cooperate, and the desire to get along with each other.

Another way of structuring the cabinet is to put together an informal group of people who have agreed to make themselves available to you and who don’t ever have to meet. Although the format is informal, you have actually asked and they have accepted to serve in this way. From the outset, you have made them aware of how you perceive their role and what kind of commitment they are making.

Whether you choose the formal or informal structure, you should take the time at the beginning to provide members with information about your organization, and then you must keep them up to date with your work. You should contact the group or each member on a regular basis: three to four times a year just to touch base, even a brief conversation to follow up on the last advice they gave.

2. Peer-to-peer network

Unlike with a kitchen cabinet, you are not necessarily going to request detailed strategic advice from this group, and you are probably not going to be comfortable talking about any serious issues you are facing.

However, this group can be extremely useful in helping you think about your day-to-day work and how you organize it, and they can connect you with contractors, ideas, and established networks.

You can, for example, contact this group and ask, “Do you know anybody who could help me with this IT problem?” or “How have you dealt with performance reviews?” You will find that you also have skills and resources to share with this group yourself.

Unlike the kitchen cabinet, which is there to support you, this group is made up of people who will need you to give them your time, ideas, and expertise as well. You have to commit to making yourself available to your peers and to be willing to share openly with them.

These relationships require a lot of trust, so don’t commit before you feel right — just like in any other relationship in your life!

3. Professional networks

Your existing professional networks can also provide great value. These can connect you with other leaders in the field and provide you with professional development opportunities. If you are a first-time CEO, then you will have to get used to the idea that, more than ever before, your professional development is your responsibility. You should regularly assess where you need to build or expand your knowledge or skills.

You should also join professional associations that are relevant to your work, such as the Institute of Public Administration of Canada or the Association of Fundraising Professionals, and take advantage of the conferences and other professional-development opportunities offered. This will help you keep current in areas relevant to your work and connect with your peers.

As you get more comfortable in your role, you should consider ways to share your knowledge with your peers by offering to provide workshops or write content for the association blog or newsletter.

Start small but early

While you do not need to establish all of the networks right away, you will find that the earlier you can set up your kitchen cabinet, the better. You’ll need them most in the first few weeks and months when you don’t know the staff or the board. As the new CEO, you did not have a hand in setting up the structure or picking any of your staff and board colleagues, and most likely you will not have many trusted relationships within the organization since these take time to develop. Having your own cabinet is critical. You can take some time to develop the other networks, but be careful not to wait too long. You will be a better CEO when these are in place.

Before deciding on the structures of and the people to bring into your networks, take time to conduct a self-assessment that identifies what needed knowledge you are missing, what you need to broaden, and what you need to keep up to speed on. Here’s Franca Gucciardi on how she did the assessment when she accepted her first CEO job:

In the “need to know” column, I put financial management, legal, and board management. Although I had experience in setting and managing budgets, I had not been financially responsible for an entire organization. The same could be said for board management. I had prepared and presented reports for a board, and I had served on boards, but this was the first time I was reporting to one directly. In my “need to broaden” column, I wrote human resources, fundraising, and communications. These were priorities for the Loran Scholars Foundation, and although I had experience in all three, I knew I would benefit from the assistance and advice of a few experts as I planned for some changes. I must admit that I did not even think about the “need to keep up with” column until much later. I was so focused on my immediate needs that I did not understand how equally useful it would be to continue to nurture the relationships and areas of expertise that I already possessed.