August 6, 2014

Market Analysis

Great IT Leaders Must Be Great Connectors

This article was originally published on cioinsight.com

If you want to be a Digital Renaissance Man or Woman, you must be a world-class connector of people with different backgrounds, disciplines and world views.

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Beginning in the 1400s, the Medici family of Florence began their rise to power and the formation of a financial, political and religious dynasty that would span almost 300 years. The family was the dominant force in Florence, thanks in part to its banking, and enjoyed significant influence throughout Italy and many parts of Europe throughout much of this time. The House of Medici is most widely remembered for its significant patronage of the arts, particularly during the early years of their reign. As a result of this patronage, Florence became a hotbed of artistic expression as painters, sculptors, philosophers, poets and scientists flocked there to enjoy the patronage of the Medici family.

As artists and scientists from these wildly different disciplines interacted and shared ideas, an explosion of creativity occurred. So much so, in fact, that many people consider the Medici’s patronage as one of the catalysts that launched the Renaissance. This was the basis of Frans Johansson’s book, The Medici Effect. The idea that innovation and creativity occurs when people with differing ideas and points of view are brought together and simply allowed to interact and share their experiences, knowledge and ideas. I believe that, in many ways, the patriarchs of the Medici family were the first and perhaps ultimate connectors—a term made popular by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, The Tipping Point. And in being so, the Medici were also a model for all Digital Renaissance Men and Women of our modern time.

All Renaissance Men and Women Are Connectors

In the days before LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, “social networking” had a very different meaning. And had you looked it up in a printed dictionary (trust me, you used to own one), you would have found Jimmy Moore’s picture next to the phrase.

In a past life, I served for a time as the president of The Arts Council of Temecula Valley, which was sort of like an arts commission for my then-community of about 150,000 people. As president, I attended a lot of city and political functions. And Jimmy Moore could always be found at these events.  The husband of one of the city’s first councilwomen, Jimmy knew everyone in Temecula Valley. But he didn’t use his network for his own gain. He used to help everyone else. He was a connector.

Every time my wife and I showed up at an event, Jimmy would be there, almost as if he had been waiting for us. “Charlie, there’s someone you should meet,” he would tell me. “He’s in the computer business, too.” Or “Charlie, you need to talk to Sam—he might love wine more than you do.” Or “Charlie, I’d like to introduce you to Sharon. Her kids attend the same school as yours and she has some strong ideas about arts in the school.”

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Jimmy seemed to have mastered the nuances of my life, and was always on the lookout for someone that he could connect me to, someone who shared an interest or affinity of mine. For me, knowing that Jimmy would be attending an event made that it both less socially difficult and a million times more enjoyable. I was always assured that I would have someone wonderful to meet who I would have something in common with. Jimmy would make sure of it.

And, not surprisingly, those “chance meetings” often led to some exciting and unexpected opportunities.

The Need for Innovation Catalysts

This is the fifth article in a six-part series titled “What It Means to be a Digital Renaissance Man.” In the series, I am exploring the traits that will embody Digital Renaissance Man and Woman. One of the traits of these modern digital leaders will be prolific connecting. These Digital Renaissance Men and Women will be connectors of people, connectors of ideas, and connectors of questions. As our world becomes ever more complex and intertwined, there will be times when there are no easy answers. And the solutions to these complex problems can be found by exploring unexpected combinations of different disciplines.

As the world seeks this type of innovation, it will be the Digital Renaissance Men and Women who will help create the modern-day, and potentially virtual, Florences of our time. They will bring together people from different backgrounds, different disciplines and different world views—people who ostensibly have nothing in common. But like Jimmy Moore, these digital connectors will find the common bonds to enable professionals with wildly different backgrounds to feed off each other and find the buried answers to these complex problems.

If you want to become a Digital Renaissance Man or Woman, you will have to become a world-class connector. You will need to be the person who brings people together and helps them bring out the best in each other.

If you’re up to the challenge of being a world-class connector, here are three things that you must do:

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
The first challenge that you will likely have when it comes to becoming a great connector is that your world is too small. Face it, IT professionals tend to only spend time with others in our industry. Perhaps on a social level, your reach is broader, but there’s a good chance that you rarely connect your two worlds. However, to create the Medici Effect, you need to bring together people of different disciplines, cultures and perspectives. It means that you need to get out of your comfort zone and find people whose backgrounds are different than your own! Perhaps that involves going to a financial industry networking event. Or perhaps you can attend a gallery reception (you know, with art and stuff!). Or you can attend a local Chamber of Commerce event. Whatever it is, just make sure that you are purposefully putting yourself in a situation where you will meet people who look at the world differently than you do.

Get Out of Your Box
Getting yourself to the party is the first step. Once you’re there, you need to open your mind to whatever may come. On a recent speaking tour of New Zealand, a friend graciously invited me to spend the weekend at her house between events. As we were driving to her home, she informed me that good friends of her and her husband would be joining us for dinner.  

And that they were dairy farmers.  

I have to admit that I thought to myself, “Great. What in the world am I going to talk to dairy farmers about?” As it turned out, they were lovely and welcoming people, and it was a great pleasure to meet them. Eventually, the inevitable happened and the dairy farmer turned to me and asked, “So what do you do for a living?”

“Oh, I work in computers,” I answered, thinking it was best to keep it simple.

“Ah, good. Technology is amazing these days. Our farm is fully automated. I manage my entire herd of 500 cattle with only three people. You should see my control room.” With that exchange, we proceeded to spend the next hour discussing the automation that he uses to run his farm. (It’s a very interesting story, but one that will have to wait for another article.)

The point is that we are in an amazing industry that touches nearly everything. I dare you to attend any networking or social function and not find a way that what you do connects to everyone else. So open your mind, get out of your self-imposed box and enjoy the wonder of seeing how technology is connected to almost everything else today in unexpected ways.

Get Out of the Way
Once you begin to see the world through different eyes, ideas will begin to emerge. As they do, new connections will form. As much as this may happen outside of your company, you may be surprised to learn that these outside experiences and perspectives will help you to discover new ideas from the inside. As these ideas emerge, your goal is to bring people together and let them explore.

The trick is to get out of their way.

Where most innovation goes wrong is when people attempt to “over script” it. The Medici family didn’t seek to create the Renaissance. There was no invitation-only Renaissance conference with facilitated brainstorming sessions and panels on “Artistic Innovation in Five Simple Steps.” Through their patronage, the Medici family simply brought these great artists and thinkers together different—and then stayed out of the way. It was simply being together in one place and being given the freedom to explore that allowed the innovation to happen.

Creating a Modern-Day Florence

Our modern world is a challenging place. We need leaders who can help us come together to solve complex problems in unique and surprising ways. No one person, let one perspective, will have all of the answers. It will be the Digital Renaissance Men and Women who are able to bring us together so that we can combine our unique perspectives and expertise to create something larger than ourselves.  

You can be one of these leaders. You just need to strive to expand your perspectives, actively seek to see the connections between everyone and everything, and then provide forums to let those around you explore them. How can you become a modern-day patron of the digital arts? How can you create a modern-day Florence? In your own part of the world, these are some of the questions that you must be asking yourself if you will help lead us into the future. 

Editor’s note: This is the fifth installment of a six-part article series titled “What It Means to be a Digital Renaissance Man.” To read the fourth installment, “Three Reasons You’re Probably Not More Curious,” click here.


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