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Women in Leadership: Leadership Expert Erica Dhawan on Connectional Intelligence and Authentic Leadership

by Erica Dhawan, Cotential

April 29, 2015

Erica Dhawan


Erica Dhawan, Founder and CEO of Cotential, a company that helps enterprises prepare for the global workplace of tomorrow, discusses connectional intelligence and its significance in business. Topics of this discussion include:

  • What is connectional intelligence
  • How leaders can leverage connectedness to impact the business
  • How authenticity supports this concept of connectedness
  • Factors in business today that prevent leaders from being authentic
  • Ways businesses are negatively impacted by leaders who are unable to be themselves

Listen to the podcast, and read the transcript of the conversation here:

Natalie Miller, SAPinsider: Hi, this is Natalie Miller from SAPinsider and welcome to the SAPinsider Podcast. Today I am speaking to Erica Dhawan as part of the Women in Leadership Podcast series. Erica is the founder and CEO of Cotential, a company that helps enterprises prepare for the global workplace of tomorrow. She is also the co-author of the recently-released book, “Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence.”

Hi Erica, thanks so much for speaking with me today.

Erica Dhawan, Cotential: Thank you, great to be here.

Natalie: Now, I know you speak on this topic of connectional intelligence often and it’s the subject of your new book. Can you talk a bit about what this concept means and the significance it brings to the enterprise?

Erica: Absolutely. So, the world is changing. Everyone is connected today though social media, mobile devices and networks. But the key question of our time now is, ‘How do we leverage those resources, our connectedness, to achieve greater impact than ever before?’ In our new book, ‘Get Big Things Done,’ my co-author Saj-nicole Joni and I found in our research that simply building massive networks doesn’t necessarily lead to measurable change, and that the key to creating something innovative in our enterprise in today’s world that actually changes people’s lives, that increases value for our customers and clients, requires courage, empathy, curiosity, and community. And it involves rethinking how we use our networks and employ our resources in data in the smartest way possible.

So connectional intelligence is what we describe as the skill that 21st century innovators have and what we all need to develop to maximize the potential of all of our connections and put them to significant use. It’s truly the ability to combine knowledge, ambition, and human capital, forging connections on a global scale to create unprecedented value and meaning. So, for each and every one of you, if you think about how you can leverage connectional intelligence, the key is enabling your ability to make smart, interesting connections and building off of them. There are certain people that are often better at mobilizing their web of relations and making authentic connections. But the key in today’s world is that anyone can develop this skill, and it doesn’t have to be limited to a special elite. Thanks to digital technologies and the widespread accessibility of information, people, and resources, we can all develop this talent of connection intelligence. Not only can it enhance our careers, but to create breakthrough results for our enterprise.

Natalie: Can you speak to how authenticity supports business and how this concept ties into the idea of connectedness?

Erica: Absolutely. I’ll start by framing the concept of how connectional intelligence applies to authenticity and how both of them intertwine to support business. Years ago a social scientist named Robert Putnam talked about how there are two types of social capital inside organizations: bonding capital and bridging capital. Bonding capital is basically a concept of creating ties between a homogenous group—so this might be a leadership group or a diversity network of African Americans or a community of women. Bridging capital is basically creating ties across a heterogeneous group. When we think about much of the way our organizations have been structured for the past series of years, they have primarily been built around growing bonding capital; creating ties among silos or groups that are diverse, but within themselves they are quite homogenous. But in today’s world we can’t just build bonding capital; we also need bridging capital to truly harness diversity and differences across groups to better reach our clients, our customers, and our employees in new ways.

For much of the past series of years the concept of covering parts of your authentic self at work seemed like the only key to success in order to first morph and adapt to corporate culture, but also because a much of the reinforcement was around ensuring that bonding capital was present in an organization. But in reality, when you cover up aspects of your authenticity, you only bring half of your brain, your passion, and intention, and ultimately, you might be open to even walking out of the door because, in that environment you are truly not able to leverage all of the differences that you bring to the table. When we think about expanding the notion of bridging capital it really gives us a new context to drive more business innovation and results across different levels of our organization, across silos, and with our customers and clients. And research has shown that all people, all employees, including straight white male leaders often cover their authenticity in different ways in the corporate world, whether it’s appearance based, affiliation based, advocacy based.

What we need to understand is that by being authentic it really provides a language for inclusion efforts that speak across the differences of all employees. Your ability to inspire others to share their brain power with you actually depends more on the authenticity of your motivations and your narrative than personal charisma or professional prestige. I truly believe that in today’s context that’s hyper-connected and multigenerational, the people that are open and sincere will be the ones who will be able to rally their employees and their customers and clients around their vision and built strong, productive relationships.

Natalie: In your experience with your clients at Cotential, what are some factors or issues that prevent them from being open and sincere?

Erica: This is a great question and it comes from really, how can we better frame authenticity in the workplace. Authenticity really facilitates the ability to connect across difference. This is a key part of my work around connectional intelligence with my co-author Saj-nicole Joni. Twenty years ago, emotional intelligence came to the stage in the business world, and it focused our attention on understanding our own personal attributes. In today’s global, hyper-connected, and multigenerational workplace, now there is a demand to have emotional skills across a variety of modalities. Not just in person, but remotely, across global bounds, with customers in completely different environments, and through online communities and networks. And that really involves a different level of skills, which is about using our connectional intelligence through authenticity.

In order to effectively use authenticity and reduce the repercussions of when leaders can’t be authentic, we truly have to better understand how we can think differently about this concept; how we can open ourselves up and inject as much humanity as possible into our connections.

Based on my work in generational shifts in the workplace, what I’ve seen is that the next generation of millennials who’ve been raised in an age of connectivity, see this as an imperative. They have lived and acted in an environment where they've seen leaders portrayed at all different levels through the rise of social media and crowdsourcing. In order to attract, retain, and motivate the next generation of talent, and also the next generation of customers and clients, we truly have to move past the notion of just focusing on this concept of bonding capital or aligning and adapting to corporate culture and truly leveraging our bridging capital which allows us to think and act in new ways and therefore strengthen our connections for business results.

Natalie: How do you feel companies will be negatively impacted if they don’t adopt these changes and if their leaders can’t be themselves, and especially as you pointed to, with millennials coming in and the multigenerational workforce?

Erica: I think that there could be a huge disaster if senior leaders today don’t embed a more authentic format for employees at all levels to express themselves, and it’s really this corporate cost of bringing just half your brain, half of your talents to the table. It’s not just an issue around talent and engaging and motivating the next generation who may not feel connected to the mission and the senior leadership if they don’t express their authenticity. But it’s also an issue for the next generation of customers and clients that will demand to be able to connect with services that are provided in more authentic ways.

Natalie: Awesome. Thank you, Erica. Any closing remarks to leave our listeners?

Erica: Absolutely. One other factor, I think that is incredibly important for leaders when framing the concept of authenticity, is to move from the discussion around unconscious bias to what I call conscious accountability. Research actually shows   that unconscious bias is prevalent across workforces and often times that’s many of the fears of expressing authenticity in the workplace. But what we’ve also seen is that when employees are educated about unconscious bias it sometimes does not lesson unconscious bias, but it sometimes accelerates unconscious bias because many of these stereotypes are seen as common behavior. So to truly move from unconscious bias to conscious accountability, leaders need to think differently about how work is structured so more diverse input can be shared and can be shared in a way that is encouraged, motivated, and tied to performance. This can be seen through the power of tools like crowdsourcing, or bringing cross-generational groups together to solve challenges. And one of the most exciting impacts of online communities in today’s world, whether it’s a customer-based community, an employee-based knowledge network, is that when you are sharing online, often times people don’t see a lot of things at the beginning, they just see what you have to bring to the table—they don’t know your level, your age, or your background. And in today’s world, we can think critically about how to use digital modality to enable our authentic selves and create ways for more diverse voices to be shared that will truly enable us to move from unconscious bias to a conscious accountability.

Natalie: Well, Erica, this has been really interesting. Thank you for your time today.

Erica: Thank you.

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