How to Weave an Enduring Social Network

complex systems

Building Friendships, Not Algorithms

The Importance of Taking a Longitudinal, Diversified Approach to Relationship-Building

July 22, 2022
celine + ken

How long are work relationships supposed to last? How serious should they be? And who exactly should we be talking to, and collaborating with, during the workday? The answers to these questions are unclear. What is certain: Developing deep, long-term, diverse connections is neither obvious nor easy. This requires, for most people, shifting into a new mindset and practice. How might non-professional networkers manage this? In the conversation below, two indefatigable connectors, Céline Schillinger, author of the recently published Dare to Un-Lead: The Art of Relational Leadership in a Fragmented World, and Ken Gordon, our Chief Communication Specialist, talk candidly about how their years-long thought partnership has developed. They explore why our current moment, with its complex problems, demands that we urgently activate our networks. Schillinger and Gordon think out loud about the challenges of outsmarting social media algorithms, and the necessary act of busting one’s confirmation bubble. Perhaps most importantly, they suggest some practical ways people can extend depth, breadth, and durability to their work friendships.

Let's talk about the value of creating and maintaining deep, long-term relationships, in business and on social media. Why does this matter so much, Céline?

The world is networked, complex. Our journey through life is an opportunity to acquire knowledge, to create emotional connections that make us understand the world better and contribute more fully. Staying in a bubble, avoiding rich, dense and diverse connections, reduces our possibility of making an impact.

Social media focuses our attention on not just our bubble, but on what's happening right now, rather than what occurred before or what's going forward. So breaking out of that requires a different way of thinking and acting, no?

The issues we face cannot be solved quickly, or via the latest technology. Long-term issues require long-term connections, building upon all the knowledge that has occurred before we were even here.

Long-term tends to be overlooked in our rapid cycles of novelty and change, encouraged by capitalism and consumerism. It takes a real effort to keep a place for the long-term in our lives.

Our social media lives are designed to encourage us to talk only about immediate topics in extreme ways.

I agree. Algorithms favor outrage and strong emotions, which create high levels of social engagement. But short-term negative emotions only add to the problems. We need to resist this actively.

Right now, where I am, it's 41 degrees Celsius (106°F) for the first time ever. There are humongous wildfires, a direct consequence of forestry management and global warming. Focusing only on short-term issues and short-term gains will lead us to what: massive extinction? We must do things differently, right now.

What you're talking about is denial—denial of a long-term existence of ourselves, and humanity. The exclusive focus on the now, now, now is hurting us, all of us, in a variety of ways.

Leaders seem focused exclusively on the next election or the next quarter gains… this isn’t sustainable.

Let’s zoom in now, get a little personal, and talk about our long-term relationship. We were both at a Business Innovation Factory conference in Rhode Island in 2015. I was an audience member.

Yes! I was a presenter in 2016.

How did you get involved in the BIF community?

I was encouraged to join by Dany De Grave, a former colleague of mine at Sanofi, and by Lois Kelly, a long-time participant and friend of the organizers. Interestingly, the conference had no overarching theme. The theme emerged from the interrelations of all speeches, co-created by the audience and unique to each participant. I loved it.

One of the cool things about BIF was that there wasn’t a huge separation between the presenters and the audience, and there was actually quite a bit of interaction, which is how we met.

That’s right. I told the story at BIF, and it is now in my book.

How did you put together your BIF talk?

I worked hard on the narrative. It would have to be useful for others. My friend Fatiha Hajjat helped me prepare, and suggested I tell my story without the word “I,” at least using it minimally. Quite a challenge! Yet a great way to contain the ego, to invite others into our story.

Soon after that, my colleage Jon Campbell interviewed you on The Resonance Test, on which you said (among other interesting things): “We can no longer rely on a system that has a small brain and many, many hands. We need the brain to be present in every cell of the organization.”

We do!

It was valuable not just to our listeners but to me, because it kept our connection alive.

I love the way you encourage real conversations. You're always reaching out, engaging people, creating the opportunity for rich dialogues instead of purely transactional connections.

Thanks. You came back to the podcast this year to talk about your book. Seems like what we're doing now is building on material from that conversation. It’s a chance for you to evolve your thoughts even more. One of the really great benefits of social media, which is that it allows us to have longitudinal public conversations.

I agree.

Social also allows us to bring others into the convo. One of my favorite people on LinkedIn is a guy named Gordon Ray. He teaches at the business school in Grenoble and happens to be your neighbor.

I discovered Gordon by chance. You two had a LinkedIn conversation, I got curious, clicked on his profile, and saw that he was in Grenoble, a short ride from Lyon. And so just a few weeks later, we had lunch together. That was lovely.

Makes perfect sense you two should meet. And speaking of naming the people in one’s network, there’s a lot of that in Dare to Un-Lead.

It was important to honor all those people who have inspired my journey. We tend to forget who has, you know, given us a lending hand, an idea, a piece of work... I tried to express gratitude to as many people as possible in this book.

This book gathers my network. It tells people: “I have not forgotten you and I know what I owe you.”

As Ben Zoma says: “Who is honored? He who honors others.” Now let's talk about how other people can learn to be more longitudinal. For instance, how do you keep in contact when people leave your organization or field?

Twitter lists are useful. I once made a list gathering all the co-workers I could identify on the platform. I was at Sanofi at the time, and deliberately kept in that list those who left the organization. They were no longer on the company’s internal social network but still present in that Twitter list.

I also make lists when I attend events. It's a good way to also reconnect or see what people are up to. Try it!

When someone who I've really connected with goes to another company, I give them a few months to get adjusted and then schedule a virtual coffee check in.

That makes sense.

Just did one, in fact, with my former colleague Buck Sleeper. Next up: Agenda-free conversations! To avoid being overly transactional, it’s a good idea to sometimes say to a colleague or client: “Let's just talk for 20 minutes” without any expectation of giving or getting.

Yes! Don't call people just when you need them—that's the worst.

Isn't it terrible when you haven't heard from someone in three years and they say, “I've got a job interview; can you give me a recommendation?”

It's awful.

We sometimes need recommendations, but it's much nicer to ask for one if you're in real, regular contact with the person in question.

Exactly. It’s a matter of patience. Sometimes I’ll think: “I need to reach out to X person for Y or Z!” and then I'm like: “Oh, hang on. Fight your impatience.”

Better to connect first—maybe around the good content they’ve shared. Try to avoid shortcuts, which put off everybody, me included. Focus on the relationship before focusing on your short-term goal.

And now… co-creation! A lot of people create stuff to share online, but few know how to collaborate. When people take a more dialogic approach, as in this piece with HBS' Tarun Khanna, it's stronger. One way to deepen a relationship is to find someone you really respect and think together on the page (like we’re doing here!).

Nothing beats co-creation. A while ago I faced a problem with a client and instead of trying to deal with it on my own, I opened up to my network on Twitter. I asked: “What would you do in this situation?” and got lots of responses.

Afterwards, I collated everything and assembled a blog post, to share the knowledge back with the community.

What’s particularly compelling about that is that you took an ephemeral social media conversation and preserved it. At the same time, it’s a tribute to your good relationships and the quality thinking that can come out of social conversation.

To maintain long-term relationships, you need to show that you're present. It can be with a like, a comment on a post, a retweet. Lurkers are missing the point. It's great to learn from your network… but it's even greater to show you appreciate their content.

And it’s really important not to use social media purely as a quid pro quo, to jump in and comment on everything and everybody so that they’ll do the same for you.


You have to discriminate a little bit, don’t you think?

Absolutely. Especially since all our interactions teach the algorithm. We want to be thoughtful in what we teach the algorithm.

For example, if I interact with each and every one of your posts, then the algorithm will show me way too much Ken and not enough of the rest of my network.

Ugh! Let’s talk about your idea of teaching the algorithm as a way of widening one’s community.

It's easy to slip into a confirmation bubble. So, you want to be intentional about maintaining a broad enough community so that you keep accessing different content, different points-of-view and personalities. Maintaining this diversity of relationships over time.

What are some specific ways you do that? You mentioned Twitter lists. Are there any other tactics you take?

I never click on viral content. LinkedIn posts that have thousands of likes do not need mine. Instead, I try to encourage those which have received less attention.

Strategic tagging is useful, if done well. You don’t want to bother people by tagging them, put off others by not tagging them.

Also: Diversify the platforms you use. Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Signal, WhatsApp groups, Messenger groups… you don’t need to use them all, but diversity is valuable. Each has its own communities and modes of interaction.

This has me thinking about what I call semi-social media. A lot of the work I do happens via private message or email, particularly when I'm connecting to authors, professors, or other experts, who curate their public conversation.


Finally, when you're doing long-term relationship building, it can consume a lot of time and energy, if you do it incorrectly. How do you ensure that you balance your relational activities with transactional things you have to do?

When given the choice, I tend to favor the relationship. So for example, I never use ready-formatted messages in my emails. I always, always tailor my messages to my recipients, even if it takes me more time.

Focusing on the relationship before the work makes sense in our relational world. It’s not a waste of time. It matters to people to be seen, heard and respected.

This kind of connection requires deep listening and well-composed communication. You need to really think about the other person and use honest, non-clichéd language when expressing yourself.

Exactly. And assume that your past relationships have evolved at least as much than you have. You can't go back to someone who you haven't spoken to for five years and expect that they will be in the same spot where you left them.

They will have changed. You will have changed, too—and this is an interesting point to start a new conversation!

I’m thinking now about your book, in which you mentioned so many colleagues, named and unnamed. You don't see that in the volumes of other thought leaders. Using your platform to share stories of people you've worked with, but who aren't necessarily at the top of the org chart, is a superb thing to do.

I gave a copy of the book to one of them. He doesn’t speak English, so he can’t read it—but I showed him where his name was. “Oh wow! Am I going to be famous in the world?” he asked. I said, “Of course you will be.” He got so moved, he was close to tears. I love these people so much.

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