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Networks can be powerful agents of change
Author: Leslie van Rooi
Published: 08/08/2022

​What really is the power of networking? This is the question Dr Leslie van Rooi, Senior Director: Social Impact and Transformation, explored in a recent article for Daily Maverick.

  • ​Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

Leslie van Rooi*

After a forced postponement of about two years, I finally find myself in Fontainebleau, France. The town is perhaps best known for its world-renowned business school INSEAD. And this is where I am – one of 76 students from more than 25 countries around the world, all enrolled for the Advanced Management Programme (AMP).

Presented at most of the top business schools around the world, AMPs bring together thought leaders from various sectors. These courses are coveted by students and institutions alike because of their core 'secret', namely, to bring together the so-called c-suite executives around a programme designed to enhance and catapult their careers, to network and to better understand a fast-changing world.  

After a long but enriching first week, I found myself walking back from dinner with a newfound friend from Greece who recently spent four years in a regional office of a multinational company in Nigeria. We shared stories unique to the African continent and reflected on the course, in particular, the theme of networking that was addressed in class earlier in the week. We openly share something of our own experiences at INSEAD, our thoughts on the subject literature and of our own strategies and thinking used in our roles.

We talked about our relative surprise regarding the nature of examples and models used in the class to understand and practice networking. For us, some of the examples seem forced and borrowed from an era very different from our own. During our reflection whilst walking back to campus I thought of the movie, Wolf of Wall Street, to share my interpretation of our learning experience linked to the theme of networking. In this movie, the hard and harsh realities of often defaming, cold and profit-seeking against-all-odds characteristic of business leadership is portrayed. Here networks fulfill mostly one role; to make more money and thus expanding personal power bases.   

Don't get me wrong, I strongly believe in the power of networking and of networks. I have experienced this in my own life. More so, I am from a university where networks amongst students often leads to startups that become mavericks and gamechangers in South Africa and elsewhere. This is perhaps one of the competitive advantages of Higher Education. And it is particularly true for my institution, Stellenbosch University.

I understand the good and bad of strong networks. On the one hand they are powerful, needed and of huge value on a personal and communal level. On the other hand, they are exclusionary, often very one-dimensional and sometimes so closed that it denies the necessary value of diversity – a value that enables innovation. As such networks, to have a positive impact, should be harnessed and managed. They should not be overestimated, and they should definitely not be underestimated.

It is also clear that AMPs can indeed help participants to create and tap into powerful international networks that span continents. The networks formed during and after completing these programmes testify to this. It would thus be strange for participants not to deliberately explore the power and opportunities of expanding personal networks. In our course, the table is indeed set for new opportunities for both individuals and societies. Just imagine the possibilities represented through our diversity as participants in this course. On a personal level, this is demonstrated by a sharp increase in my LinkedIn views and follow-requests.

I have learned that the most powerful networks bring about meaningful change in the lives of the individual and in society at large. These networks are open, flexible, and engaging. They allow for a power base ready to ignite and bring change for the common good through creating and enhancing opportunities for many others, in all sectors. This is perhaps counter to the idea and nature of networks in eras gone by.

And perhaps this should be one of the primary outlooks and added benefits of AMPs in the context of business schools in South Africa and other similar countries and economies. That is, that we deliberately think differently about networking and the inherent opportunities it provides to us and to our societies.

Business schools globally owe it to their students to bring varied 'worlds' together in teaching, learning, research, and engagement – both on and off campus. This asks for an understanding of networking that harnesses the inherent possibilities and opportunities linked to diversity in all its challenging forms. It should foster a value-based understanding of networking that is for good. This can be done by critically engaging with the models of the past; its mistakes, and its value adds.

In the end, our world asks of senior leaders to be change makers not only to their benefit, but also to the benefit of those far from the hallways of our business schools. This indeed asks of us to invest in and expand powerful, diverse, enabling and serving networks that create opportunities for success and change on various levels.  

*Dr Leslie van Rooi is Senior Director: Social Impact and Transformation at Stellenbosch University.