Dave Odom: Your contact list is a leadership development tool

Saving a contact in a mobile phone

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Leaders and their staffs need a diverse array of conversation partners to navigate institutional leadership today. Start by introducing your colleagues to your cellphone contacts and Facebook friends, writes the executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The CFO at our city’s second-largest employer once turned to my boss and said, “Your job is to introduce this employee to the most interesting people that you know.”

Twenty years later, that advice still rings true. One of the best and least-expensive resources for providing developmental learning opportunities for your staff is in your cellphone contact list and among your Facebook friends.

My boss and I were in the CFO’s office because the CFO had facilitated a meeting with a nonprofit board on which my boss served. The CFO’s skill as an analyst and facilitator had left such an impression that my boss had arranged for the three of us to meet so I could get some advice.

The CFO was so busy that it had been challenging to schedule a 30-minute conversation. Once it was on the books, the CFO sent word that I should prepare by putting together a packet of information about me and my department, including the mission, audience, funding sources, expenses, priorities and challenges. The packet was more than 50 pages. I sent it a week in advance, as instructed, but I thought the CFO would never read all of it.

My department was in the midst of several difficult transitions. The demand for our ministry was growing, but the financial model did not support the growth. The governance structure was complicated, with the department operating a separate nonprofit corporation that included a board. The board and my boss did not have a well-defined relationship, which required me to mediate between them. Our staff was expanding.

I was in over my head. I was relieved that my boss realized I needed some guidance from someone who knew more about organizations than either of us. My boss oversaw five very different organizations. He was pulled in a lot of directions and thus needed each of his direct reports to operate autonomously. Most of the time, I had to work with my team to find our own way forward. The introduction to the CFO was a rare moment when the boss had organized something for my benefit.

When we arrived at the meeting with the CFO, it was clear that he was well-prepared. His initial questions demonstrated that he had read and synthesized all the pre-meeting materials. He got to the heart of the issues and pressed me to think more clearly about the work. He made several suggestions about areas to explore and ideas to consider.

What stands out nearly 20 years after that meeting was his advice to my boss. My boss had asked what other people I should be meeting, fishing for potential board members among the CFO’s contacts. The CFO responded by grilling my boss about his own community contacts. He noted that getting their attention would require persistence, and he pressed my boss to pave the way for me by setting up the meetings and making the introductions himself.

The art of the introduction is about more than getting people together. The introducer must name what is at stake in the conversation. Why do these people need to meet each other? What could come from a conversation?

A 50-page briefing book worked for the CFO, but for most leaders, it’s important to get to the heart of the matter more quickly. For instance, I might tell a busy community leader, “You need to meet this person because she cares about the ideas that are your priorities. She is a gifted administrator and could direct some of the initiatives you are dreaming up.”

These introductions don’t always go well. One person might lose sight of what is at stake, or one person might be distracted by the urgent matters of the day. Yet even when the initial meeting is not fruitful, a more generative interaction might happen later. Don’t judge every introduction by the first encounter.

Supervisors often think too narrowly about what leadership development means. Many assume it’s a course or a program, when in reality, the highest-impact leadership development happens on the job, with developmentally appropriate assignments that stretch the employees.

Similarly, it’s not enough to hand your employees a list of contacts and wish them well. Consider instead how you might leverage your contacts to become resources for your colleagues’ development. How might your colleagues benefit from meeting your friends, and vice versa?

The pressures of limited resources can convince any of us that we don’t have time to meet interesting people. Yet it is through conversations with committed, gifted and concerned leaders that our eyes are opened to different perspectives.

A friend of mine is highly sought as a speaker and conversation partner. We were talking one day about how to prioritize the many demands on her time. She wondered why so many people wanted to talk with her. I mentioned that she knows more interesting people than the average Christian pastor.

Given the chaos that many Christian institutions are experiencing at the moment, it is critical to enrich the diversity of conversation partners for you and your staff. We need to keep our chins up, and we can help each other by sharing our most interesting people with each other.