The Connectors

Tom Peters

Drive around Vermont in the summer, and you’ll see an extraordinary accumulation of big construction equipment sitting idle ($100,000 bulldozers, for instance). I bet I see 10 pieces at rest for every one at work.

Transporting the monsters from here to there is no piece of cake. But still, there’s got to be an enormous opportunity lurking somewhere. If only you could find a way to connect vegetating machines with active jobs, everyone would win!

American Airlines figured that out years ago, when it began leasing unused time on its computers. Before long, providing computer services for others had become a core business. Of course, American had to find prospective users and make them aware of its new service—that is, connect the pieces of the puzzle.

Connect, connection: They’re at the heart of economics. There’s no sale, no matter how scintillating (or inexpensive) the product, until there’s a “connection” with a seller. The problem is the connecting process has always seemed, well, smarmy. Those in “the connection business” don’t do anything, or so the lament goes, and has gone for thousands of years.

Thus we decry the prominent role—and attendant profits—accorded to bankers, advertisers, wholesalers, warehousers, deliverers, retailers, etc. These folks don’t plant trees, fertilize trees, cut down trees, or build houses with trees.

Oddly enough, it’s the connectors—not the so-called “doers”—who usually transform society. Canalmen, then railroaders and highway builders and phone companies, have done more to foster economic growth and innovation than the Procter & Gambles, General Motors, U.S. Steels.

Connections are hard to “see,” which is one reason we don’t like them. We’re still children of the Newtonian view of the world—a lumpy-object view that dominated for hundreds of years. But quantum mechanics has upset the Newtonian apple cart. Ethereal connections and probabilities of connections are everything. You can’t talk sensibly about anything by itself, the new breed of physicists says; you can only talk about the likely relationship of transient things to other transient things.

A San Francisco-based company, called Management Maximizers, gets the message. It provides substitute executives and temporary project managers for an impressive list of corporate clients. Suppose Ms. X, head of human resources at LMN Widgets, takes a four-month leave of absence. M2 (or “M-squared,” as it labels itself) pokes around in its enormously talented, 2,000-person “network” of interim execs—and finds several candidates to fill the post. Or perhaps a midsize company wants to launch a new service, which calls for a telemarketing capability. There’s little doubt that M2 can provide an experienced telemarketing star to get the service underway.

M2 was successful from the start, but its repeat business rate has not met the founders’ expectations—despite consistent rave reviews from clients. It seems that clients don’t “get” network power and connection power, M2 execs observe. “Our biggest competitor,” an M2 principal told me, “is the half-dozen ‘friends’ who come to the mind of the company executive who’s looking for a replacement person.” In short, M2’s customers can’t tell the difference between their handful of cronies and the immense M2 network (and M2’s canny ability to fit its prospects to the customer’s “culture”).

The Management Maximizers case is one small example of the failure to understand connection power. Such failures are increasingly expensive. As the commercial world turns ever faster, more of that world’s work gets done by temporary alliances and networks. Connection power—the ability to tap, and then work with, a shifting array of participants for a finite period of time—is perhaps the premiere skill called for in the emerging economy.

If you believe in “connection power,” here’s what you might do:

– Hire “connectors.” There are networkers who instinctively invest in connections and relationships. And there are others who reject “networking” as “sissies” work.” Hail those sissies. (And hire them!)

– Train in connecting. Networking may be an instinctive skill (women are apparently better at it, in general, than men), but at least we can train an appreciation for the art form.

– Mind your calendar. Is there enough time for “connecting” in your daily routine? The number of folks who “hang-out-for-success” (i.e., play their network like a master) may appall you—better that it should send you a clear and urgent message.

– Invest in connecting. Electronic networking, within and beyond the firm, is all the rage these days. It’s easy to do it wrong; still, the electronically networked company (done right) is on track to succeed.

– Open wide the doors. “Them” vs. “us” is not the way of networks, though it is, sadly, still the way of most companies. Until the borders inside and outside your organization vanish, connection-for-profit, the best bet for future success, will not become the name of your game.

For survival’s sake, the age-old suspicion of “connectors” (middlepersons, on or off our payroll) had best vanish. Fast.

(C) 1992 TPG Communications.

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