We all know the recipe for corporate success: set your goals, then execute on them. But if every last person in your company scrupulously sticks to the plan, says Ellen Levy, former Vice President of Strategic Initiatives for LinkedIn, you may be missing valuable opportunities. “I don’t believe you should lock something down 100%,” she says. “Inside an organization, it’s good to have structure. But the problem is, if everybody has their next 3 months completely booked based on what they’ve committed in advance to deliver, there’s no room for serendipity in the organization.
She argues that one way companies can remain nimble and seize new opportunities is to deploy a small cadre of staff or consultants who are specifically charged with networking, making connections (between both people and ideas), and identifying nascent trends and possibilities. “I’m in no way suggesting an entire organization should be structured that way,” she says. “But I do believe there is tremendous value in having outposts who catch things and know how to bring them back into the organization effectively. It doesn’t take too many people – somebody who can cross-pollinate, bring stuff from outside, from across the organization. You don’t need that many catalysts.”
Levy – dubbed “the most connected woman in Silicon Valley” in a recent Fast Company profile – has often worked has one of these strategic “outposts.” For months while working at LinkedIn, she’d taken calls from a prominent organization, providing ad hoc help and advice about using the service. “Everybody was so busy, and there was 10x too much on our plates,” she recalls. “It sometimes felt like you shouldn’t do anything other than what you promised to deliver, but I always made time to work on unplanned, seemingly important things with quality people, even if it meant longer work hours with no immediately apparent ROI.” Her relationship-building eventually resulted in a major media opportunity for the company. “Nobody’s going to fault you for not following up on a random call with somebody we don’t have a formal business relationship with,” says Levy. But sometimes, that’s where the best possibilities dwell.
So how can companies identify good candidates for these “super-connector” roles? Levy praises companies like Google and Intuit, which allow employees to spend a portion of their time on innovative passion projects: “If you give talented, motivated people time to work on something they are passionate about, separate from their daily routine, you get to see who and what rises to the top and can then let them do more of it.” Additionally, she says, companies should spend more time recognizing and potentially even quantifying the value of their employees’ networks. One simple example: “Imagine that every time you acquire a company with, say, fewer than 250 people, you put a worksheet in front of the employees of that company and say, ‘Check the box next to the name of anyone in the company who’s helped you in your job in some way in the past six months.’ Clearly you’ll see the org teams come together, but you’ll also find outliers who are contributing across the organization in ways not represented by any job spec or org structure. And you’d never know of that person’s contributions otherwise – the person who adds 5% value to, say, 20 different teams in your company.”
If an employee demonstrates a unique aptitude in this regard, she says, figure out a way to let them run with it. “If there’s a person who can clearly bridge the inside and outside, and wants to do it full-time, why not let them do more of it? Why not make that a job?” Of course, she recognizes the bureaucratic obstacles: “Until traditional business can measure [the value of] something, they won’t do it.” But in each of her previous jobs, and now with her Silicon Valley Connect consulting clients, Levy has developed a bulletproof response. “I’ve always had people say, how are we going to measure what you do? And I said, ‘If you can’t go back and look at the past six months and see how valuable it is, then I should go.’” In Silicon Valley, Levy’s developed a reputation as someone you always hope will stay.
How is your company positioning itself to spot opportunities? Do you have “strategic outposts” helping you gather information and make connections?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on September 10, 2012.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.