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Rethinking Leadership Networks of Program Graduates


Over the years we have talked a lot about leadership program networks. In leadership program evaluations we often hear from program participants that relationships formed with others in the program are one of the most valuable and enduring parts of their experience. We have heard stories about these relationships fostering collaborations, providing an ongoing source of consultation and advice and as an information resource exchange network. It’s no wonder that leadership programs are eager to leverage the impact of these relationships by building sustainable networks of program graduates.

The network buzz over the last several years has inspired leadership programs to imagine new possibilities for vibrant networks of their program graduates. The good news is that we have an opportunity to learn from a growing field of network organizing strategies. The bad news is that this field of work does not support conventional thinking and approaches to building alumni networks.

The Leadership Learning Community launched a collaborative research initiative, Leadership for a New Era, to explore how to support leadership that is more inclusive, networked and collective. As part of this work we are drawing lessons from a body of work on networks that can be applied to the ways in which we are thinking about leadership. It’s interesting to think about basic network principles and how we apply them to alumni development. For example, successful networks have the following characteristics:

  • Push power to the edges: decentralize decision-making
  • Distribute leadership
  • Provide fluid and open access to information, resources, and knowledge
  • Connect people, groups and other networks expanding reach and influence
  • Promote small group formation and reformation around shared interests and passions
  • Encourage openness and transparency

Do these features of successful networks characterize our approaches to networks of program graduates? First it’s important to recognize that most people who are effectively engaged in leadership are likely involved in networks that organically connect them to others in their field of work or community. Leveraging networks does not necessarily mean creating new networks. If new networks are being created it might be useful to ask for what purpose and in what relation to others. Networks generally are not closed systems, though most leadership (alumni) networks build platforms and hold events that are generally available to program graduates and special guests. A few programs, including Petra Foundation and KLCC, have created more porous boundaries that enable their leadership networks to connect themselves within existing broad coalitions or initiatives. Many leadership alumni programs are fairly exclusive and hierarchical and tend to promote formal organizational decisions about connecting with other organizations rather than authorizing participants to bring others into the network.

When forming an alumni network it might be helpful to ask yourself some questions:

  • What networks are our graduates already active in and what would be the best way to support them in those networks?
  • What is the purpose of our network?
  • How does the network organize itself?
  • Who participates in the network?
  • How are small groups or clusters in the network supported to act collaboratively?
  • How do networks engage in reflective learning about their purpose and process?
  • If you are trying to build a network, how do these network principles align with your approach?

This is new territory for many of us and we are interested in how we can learn together in this effort to take our leadership work to new levels of scale.