Why is my social network so important?

social-network-iconsLast night, I sat down with my director and had my annual performance review over a few delicious Mill Street stouts. Like any good performance review, it took about three minutes and was largely uneventful. There were no surprises; I guessed my PVAAM score (our score out of 20) exactly and my performance multiplier (0-200%) to within one percent.

In our organization and especially on our team, performance goals are incredibly pragmatic and because my director and I talk on a regular basis,  those goals are adjusted depending on the direction of our organization, my desired career path and any of the new projects that are thrown at the learning & collaboration team. There is little to no stress, disappointment or anger for any of our team members when they see the end result of each year.

That left us to talk about footie, family and the future. It was no different than any night out with any friend, until it became one of the most effective coaching sessions I’ve had since I started working in an industry that didn’t require me to wear a paper hat or fry food for lunch hour rushes.

We talked freely about my thoughts, my insecurities and my strengths – at one point I joked about pushing two chairs together and lying down on a symbolic couch – but the one piece of the conversation that really hit home when was we talked about the transparency with which I write on my blogs. There is little about my life you won’t find on this blog or nestled into the music reviews I write on herohill (you will know I love my wife and two sons fully & completely, care deeply about my job, music, the Tottenham Hotspur, the Steelers & my Giant road bike, that my dad is sick and our oldest son has a CHD) but I said often, it’s more difficult to share as freely with the people who I value as trusted friends.

He was surprised by this, but for me, I can pinpoint the exact moment when things changed for me. When Nicola and I went into the hospital for the 21-week ultrasound, we were run over by bad news. Severe heart defects. Uncertainty. I remember going home and having to call my boss and tell her the news. SAP had acquired BusinessObjects only weeks before, and although my boss was a fair, kind woman, I had no relationship with her. I had to tell her I wouldn’t be at work for a few days, maybe longer if the news was as bad as they thought it could be. I struggled to not break down, and she did her best to support me.

I hung up and could barely stand. We then realized we had to make a list of people that we loved, and have that same conversation over and over again.

The conversations added up. Telling people didn’t make it any easier. In fact, having to tell people that love you and would do anything for you, but ultimately can do nothing to help you, was unbearable. It was heartbreaking. It was tiring.

There’s a line from a fantastic Hayden song (“Rainy Saturday“), a man who has also had to feel the crippling sadness when a perfect future was reduced to best case scenarios and statistics. Probability should never be a requirement for parenthood, but for more and more people it is reality. Over a punchy drum beat and chugging electric guitar he sings:

We should have had some friends come over | you know they called so many times | But we were on a long vacation | on an island so small no one could find

That simple line is exactly how we felt. We were lost, felt alone despite everyone wanting to send us a life raft. We got our strength from each other, trying to go through each and every possible outcome. Preparing for situations we were not ready to deal with and no one should ever need to think about.

It was around that time we did something I would have never imagined doing. We did something I hate more than almost anything in the world. We sent a group email… for the most personal message we’d ever written we used the most impersonal medium we had available. It wasn’t fair to a lot of the people on the list, but neither my wife nor I could have that conversation as many times as I needed to and this was the only solution we could come up with.

The thing is, that email was the best thing I ever sent. People took the time to read and respond. They shared their spirituality or religious faith openly. They didn’t try to solve our problems or transfer sympathy to empathy in the way we often do as human beings. What we got was a collection of heartfelt messages, some only a few characters, others long well written pages.

“I know you two aren’t religious, but we are praying for you.” “You are good people, stronger than almost anyone we know. You will be okay, no matter what happens.”

We held these responses close. When we were sad or scared, it was easier to scan through an inbox then call someone and struggle to choke out the words or have to hang up.

The real gift however was when people shared the email with casual acquaintances or people they knew that had gone through similar – no one ever goes through the same experience – and we started learning about people going through the same sort of issues. We found facebook groups, twitter feeds, and blogs. We saw the good and the bad. We saw the reality. We started getting notes from mothers and fathers that had made it through the initial storm. We saw a future, assuming we got good news when our son was born.

These people became a part of my network. They had the experience to help me, but there was little emotional attachment. I still hurt when I read bad news for these friends I’ll never meet, but their sharing was something I couldn’t have gotten from even my closest friends. I could read notes, posts, and see pics when I needed to, and share on those same timelines.

Basically, I started finding answers.

C Looking So Grown UpOver the last couple of years, we’ve been extremely lucky.  As you can see, our son is growing strong and is adorable, but we’ve had to deal with bad news more often than we’d like. My dad has had cancer twice. Normally, I would have bottled that up, told a few close friends and hunkered down hoping to weather the storm, but after my experiences with our son I shared this with my team at work, people online, people I know through music AND my friends.

The stories I’ve gotten to hear, the support and the dedication – I’ve raised over 5500 bucks for cancer research through my network – is almost overwhelming. I have learned more about my friends, my colleagues and complete strangers than I would have guessed possible.

And that is the power of a social network. It’s built on people of shared interest, support and fascinating stories that only require as much commitment as you can provide. I don’t preach microblogging or informal skills sharing because it’s part of our org strategy. I believe in these tools because they help me everyday, in the hardest and best situations.

My social network helps me find new tools, new jobs, gives me encouragement, provides me context for new experiences and helps me get answers. My social network lets me be scared, lets me fail without judgement and helps me learn from everything I do. All of these things make me not only a better employee, leader or mentor, but they make me a better human being.

When I talk to an organization about why social learning is not an option, but a necessity, it’s because of these immeasurable gifts. It’s not ROI or engagement, it’s giving people the chance to be better.

I truly believe there is a reason we are in HUMAN resources, and decoupling our work from who we are is why so many people are miserable and disengaged at their job. And yes, I do find it funny that a digital network has helped me become more human, more transparent and more trusting, but all of these things (hopefully) make me a better person.

These tools and cultivated/synthesized relationships should never replace traditional relationships (ask Manti T’eo). I’m fully aware I’m connected to many people I’ve never (and will never meet) and while I never take that support for granted, having a strong social network, made me realize I can – and should – focus more on developing and improving my real life relationships. If I can learn from strangers online and share the most intimate details of my life, it’s ridiculous to think that doesn’t extend to the people in my life. My social network helped me learn to say I’m sorry and thanks for sticking with me, even when I couldn’t pick up the phone and call the people that deserved to hear it most.

If you don’t think that potential shift is valuable to you, your team or your employees, I’m not sure how else to sell you on the idea.



  1. Thanks for your genuine openess and heartfelt insight into your world. This kind of willingness to share and help others is inspiring: )

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