March 10, 2022

140 How to Lead for Productive Collaboration and Overcome Collaboration Overload with Rob Cross | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

140 How to Lead for Productive Collaboration and Overcome Collaboration Overload with Rob Cross | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Rob Cross. Rob is the co-founder and chief research scientist at the Connected Commons business consortium. He is also the Edward A. Madden Professor of global leadership at Babson College. Rob Cross has been researching the underlying networks of influential organizations and the collaborative processes of top achievers for more than 20 years. 


Rob Cross shares research and examples on how the most effective organizations and executives approach collaboration. Rob also shares strategies and techniques for overcoming collaboration overload.  


Some highlights:

- Rob Cross on how networks and collaboration have changed over time.

- How to deal with collaboration overload in the workplace. 

- Why a servant leadership approach can lead to greater collaboration overload 

- Rob Cross on how leaders can avoid contributing to the overwhelm caused by unnecessary collaboration in their organizations  

- How to effectively engage with new networks   


Also mentioned:

James Heskett, UPS Foundation Professor of Business Logistics, Emeritus at the Harvard Business School



Connect with Rob Cross:

Rob Cross on robcross.org

Rob Cross on ConnectedCommons


Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:

MahanTavakoli.com


More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 

PartneringLeadership.com



Transcript

Mahan Tavakoli: 
Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Rob Cross. Rob is the Edward A. Madden professor of global leadership at Babson College. He's also co-founder and chief research scientist at the connected commons business consortium. For more than 20 years, he has studied the underlying networks of effective organizations and the collaborative processes of high performers, and Rob has written a book called "Beyond Collaboration Overload: How to work smarter, get ahead and restore your wellbeing." I love his book and really enjoy this conversation because while collaboration is critical to all of our organizations and our success, in many instances, we are being overloaded through ineffective approaches to collaboration and Rob shares a lot of great insights and specific strategies on how we can more effectively collaborate with each other.

I also enjoy hearing from you. Keep your comments coming, mahan@mahantavakoli.com there's a microphone icon on partnering leadership.com. Really enjoyed those voice messages. Don't forget to follow the podcast on your favorite platform, that way you'll be sure to be notified of new releases, Tuesday conversations with magnificent change-makers from the greater Washington DC DMV region, and then Thursday conversations with brilliant global thought leaders like Rob Cross.

Now, here is my conversation with professor Rob Cross. 

Rob cross. Welcome to partnering leadership. I am thrilled to have you in this conversation with me. Talking about your brilliant book, which I find on a daily basis Rob, I have conversations with people talking about the overwhelm they're feeling and recommending your book "Beyond Collaboration Overload: How to work smarter, get ahead and restore your wellbeing", which is really important to all of us.

But before we get to that, I would love to know whereabouts you grew up and how your upbringing impacted who you became Rob.

Rob Cross: 
Thank you so much. It's the first of all, it's a privilege to be here, being in a discussion with you think about these ideas together. I think probably the most poignant thing about my upbringing is that there was no there was very frequently moved up and down the east coast and learned very quickly about how to kind of embed into new relationships and connections depending on the community I was put into.

And so I think that process of understanding the impact of being able to form connections quickly and driving, as a young and then high school age child was probably one of the more formative things that impacted my interest in what I started to study 23, 24 years ago.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
You had to tap into new networks as you were going to these different cities. How were you able to do that as a kid before then ending up studying it?

Rob Cross: 
One of the things that I learned early on intuitively and that we've seen play out and the data is actually, I call this the principle of push versus pull. So a lot of people, when they're new to groups, they try to come in and the conventional wisdom, first 90 days wisdom as you go out and tell people what you do, you build your brand, put points on the board.

 And what we're finding is that's actually not necessarily the thing that slingshots you into groups. Half the time people don't care what you've done unless they see how it fits with what they care about. This notion that we're seeing with people that move quickly into networks and get positioned well, is they're more likely to go on. 

Have a lot of initial meetings, ask a lot of questions, but then slowly more for what they noted the incumbents needs. They don't just immediately start with their background, their positioning, the expertise, then they're giving status, generating energy and creating a mutual win. And they get called into these groups in about a third of the time of people that are pushing, just kind of saying, here's what I've done before. and I think intuitively I figured that out as a child and rediscovered it 30, 40 years later and some of the research that we're doing here. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 
That's really interesting, Rob. So it sounds like there is similarities both as you were tapping into networks in new cities, new schools growing up, and also what you have seen in working with, organizations and studying people that are able to accelerate their engagement and organization. They are not coming in talking. They are asking questions.

Rob Cross: 
And it's a real simple inflection point. The natural tendency, anybody that's new to a group is the incumbent person who's going to say, tell me what you do. Tell me about yourself. And we respond just naturally. It's not an arrogant thing, but what we found with these really fast movers, the people that are kind of replicate the connectivity of a high performer and a third of the time is they're more likely in that moment to just pivot the conversation slightly and say, well, I can, but can you tell me first a little bit about what are two or three things you're passionate about and what you're doing right now, maybe two or three pain points, and whether that's a young person coming in and then slowly saying, "okay, here's how I can fit in how I can contribute". Or it's a leader stepping out and trying to win the engagement of their team by removing pain points. That process, we find is far more likely to kind of create inclusion engagement to pull people into work.

You ride on the legitimacy of the established people, so then suddenly somebody that's very well known is going out and saying, well, you can trust Rob. He knows what he's doing and you just get kind of drawn in far more rapidly. And unfortunately we beat this out of people through schools too much, we teach them how to be smart in the moment in the classroom and, pithy and, really direct them to the point, and kind of missed this in the process of understanding how people become valued in groups and how they, get drawn in. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 
That is one of those counter-intuitive points that you make Rob as you said, both schooling and otherwise we feel like when we're new, we need to present. We need to talk. We need to show. And in this instance, it's really important to ask those questions before going on more on the collaboration front. Just curious, you've been studying networks and collaboration for a quarter century now, how has it changed over that time period?

Rob Cross: 
Good question. And I think you're saying I'm old, right? Would that it shocks me every time I say 23, 24. Now it's 25 years out there. I originally got interested in these ideas. I was actually, focused in my doctoral work on trying to create technologies that more mimic how the brain thought and then help with the knowledge management efforts to move expertise across lines.

And what I found is everybody I would talk to about how they solve a problem at work. Nobody ever mentioned the technology. Everybody mentioned that I used my network to get expertise, decision approvals. I came up with a new idea, whatever you be. And so that got me interested at that point in time and saying, well, if we could visualize these collaborations, actually analytically understanding who's interacting with them and these large groups, then it's going to give leaders very different purchase on how they run their teams or their entire organizations, overall. And what we've seen, one of the biggest things that led me to the work and beyond collaboration overload was that from that point on, as we mapped these analytics and groups, sometimes 10,000, sometimes 50, sometimes 80,000 people. To understand kind of how the work was actually happening in the organizations is that the intensity or the time spent in collaboration has done nothing but rise over the past 15, 20 years. And it started with the movement to matrix based designs, and then there was spans and layers efforts, and more contemporary efforts around agile, in parallel with all of that, it's all these new technologies that sounds good in theory, because we can instantaneously be in contact with each other, we can create seamless enterprises, one from cultures. But you layer them on to a point now where most people are working across typically eight to nine collaborative applications to get their work done. You hear that? And you're going, oh my gosh, I can't be, but you start adding up and it's email, it's zoom, it's the slack channel, it's the team collaborative space, it's the phone. 

What that has meant for us is that as we've tried to create these more nimble adaptable organizations, we have had an unintended consequences of drowning people in collaborative efforts, so when I'm thinking about collaboration overload, I'm not at all saying don't collaborate. Everybody wants those, 8, 10 person team meetings where the ideas are flowing, it's happening. What I'm gearing on is the excessive demands that are created by the amount of time we spend on email and meetings, I am earlier in the morning, deeper into the night and that nobody's really got their hand around that. So that's been, by far one of the biggest things that has shifted over the years, just the volume, the intensity of the diversity of that churn of our lives, has gone up pretty significantly. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 
It really has, Rob and I even love the title of your book because collaboration is almost always seen as a positive, and there are positive elements of collaboration with a lot of artificial intelligence and other factors we need even more collaboration among organizations to be able to be productive and get things done at the same time, there is an overload.

You also talk about the fact that 85% of our time is spent in meetings, on email, and these other elements which what I find in working with organizations that I coach, people are working a lot, feeling anxiety and pressure, but not getting much done. They attempts at collaboration are getting in the way of actually producing results.

Rob Cross: 
Yeah, and that 85%, that was pre pandemic. What we've seen through the pandemic is that number has gone up for many, many people, about five to eight hours a week, and it's drifting earlier into the morning and deeper into the night. It would be comical if it weren't so tragic in the sense, but the biggest idea that most people had going through the pandemic, because we're going to move from one hour meetings to 30 minute meetings so we can get more. And so, you, end the day, not with a one hour meeting. So people were complaining about pre pandemic, but 16, 30 minutes, and we're exhausted, right? Because you're more intense than those sessions, you're switching across the meetings more rapidly and you end the day with a to-do list based on 16 meetings not eight, and it's just not Right. It's because many ways we're not looking at it and saying, what do we need out of collaboration? If we're trying to stimulate innovation, how do we get those connections in the right way? We're instead of throwing the tools and just saying, okay, zoom calls are going to solve this.

I've seen the same thing. In fact, my next book is really on this idea of micro stresses and understanding kind of how stress is happening to people today in a fundamentally different way than we've ever seen before, because of the way it's coming out of stew connections.

Not just because we're always on, but because the touch points that hit us through the day are coming through all these collaborations. And so it's even magnified if you're angry with somebody, or if you love somebody. 

So it's a fascinating time and we have more ability probably than ever in our past to shape what we do and who we do it with, but it comes with a phenomenal cost to that we have to manage as individuals. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 
So Rob I'm somewhat disappointed because I was expecting you to tell me a tech tool that now I can implement with the teams and organizations I work with that would address collaboration overload.

Rob Cross: 
I mean, that's what everybody wants. The one tool or the one simple trick. What we see in this to me is that the people that do better, so you can imagine analytically, I would go out and I would map, who's collaborating in these massive analytics and identify who the people that are giving the greatest impact, taking the least amount of time. And we interviewed them.

I don't understand. Okay. What are you doing? And the key thing I learned is it's not one thing, right? It's not one technology, it's not one approach, that this is much more of a brawl than a ballet, the people are really that are successful at this. They tend to hunker down and fight for the time on the margins.

 And that it's actually not the technologies that matters so much as the norms of use that are killing us. So for example, most people will look at email and say, well I can't control all the emails, so I'm not even going to try. What I would find with my efficient collaborators is that they would come in and say, well, my team generates 40% of what I have to do, and we can set some norms there. One of the simplest, most elegant solutions I hear people use all the time is take a blank piece of paper draw two lines down. So you've got three columns on the first column, indicate here's all the ways we're collaborating, email, phone, meeting whatever. And the second column say, here are three or four norms you want to start following, so we're not going to write emails that are 10 paragraphs, we're going to use bullets or things like that. And then on the last column for each of these modalities, say here three or four things, we're going to stop.

And so we're going to stop sending email at 10 o'clock at night, but you missed to do it then, but send it on a delay the next morning. So you're not starting an always on culture. It takes no more than an hour with the team, to sit down in a team meeting and say, here's ways that we've got to think about how we're collaborating and you get back significant portions of time, not just for yourself, but for everybody involved. And so to me, that's kind of the trick. It's more the norms and how we're thinking about collaboration. Even though there's always a desire, I wish I could find that tool you're talking about too.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
And it's incredible Rob, you found out that the 10% that are most effective at collaboration, get 18 to 24% of their time back. So that's almost a quarter of every week, more than a day, a week back by approaching it differently.

Rob Cross: 
And that's the thing, that's the magic. I was floored by it when I would first see this on these analytics, what I call these efficient collaborators, they were producing greater outcomes. So they, weren't not collaborating at the expense of performance. They're actually producing greater outcomes and enabling others to produce greater outcomes.

 And yet they were typically 18 to 24% more efficient than their peers. And so was a real IO, you know, to say, okay, let's understand kind of how these people are doing. And it, it boils down, as the book's kind of organized on an infinity loop with the left side of the loop being, what are these people doing that are enabling them to buy back this time? and then the right side being, how do they spend it, which I think is just as important, because if all we focus on is how to buyback time, then we're going to end back up in the same problem I just mentioned the zoom meetings, we'll go for, our meetings to 30 minute meetings and it never catches up.

But the people that are doing it better, are defined typically by how they're putting structure into their work differently, how they manage these identity triggers. And this really surprised me was that, 50% or more of overload, I can see in this work now is self-generating. I'd always assumed overload was external emails, timezones, nasty bosses.

 And that's definitely an element, but I can also see that we're our own worst enemies far more often than we realize and the more efficient collaboration was just better at seeing how they're doing that and stopping on that front. So they tend to manage triggers that lead them to jump.

And then tactically, they're just more efficient and kind of what they're doing day to day. But tremendous benefit to kind of learn from that group and say, okay, how can I apply different aspects of this to how my life is unfolding. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 
One of the things that you mentioned, Rob, is that for many leaders, the servant leadership approach is part of the problem of causing all this overwhelm.

Rob Cross: 
Yeah. every time I look at my analytics and I go back into an organization and I see, here's 5% of your population that's overwhelmed. And if I'm looking at a 5,000 person group, that's a pretty significant number of people. And if they're invisibly slowing things down, half the time they're burning out half the time the people around them are leaving at a higher rate, there's a lot of implications of that.

But the knee jerk reaction, every time somebody sees that is they need to delegate. There are control freaks, they're micromanaging. And I would say an only maybe five to 10% of the situations we see in the data is that, what gets people into trouble.

It's actually a whole set of other triggers that lead us to jump in. So the servant based mindset, people that have a strong desire to help, but if you do it too quickly and in the wrong way, then you create yourself as the path of least resistance. And at some point today, there's nobody that can survive.

All the demands that can come at you. And it's a real kind of interesting conundrum to figure out, okay, what's that trigger, that leads you to jump in when you shouldn't and then find ways to guard against it. So with the servant idea, that helping is bad, but it needs to be helping in a way that builds capability, not just helping directly, because it makes you feel good in that quick moment.

You feel like you're showing you're a leader and you're helping, in ways that creates kind of feedback back to you for time. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 
Just want to underline that point, Rob, that you mentioned helping in a way that builds capability, because part of what you say is that just buying time back is not enough. And the way I think about it is the beginning of the pandemic, most people got a couple of hours a day of commute time back, and that hasn't stopped the overwhelm, it just allowed for more meetings to be scheduled, more things to be done and more things to fall behind on. 

If we don't approach leadership and the way we collaborate with each other differently, it doesn't matter. If we get hours and hours back, we will continue wasting those hours.

Rob Cross:
I think that's like if I have one principle behind the book is to play offense, not defense, but the people that I see that allow themselves to get into trouble and the stories I hear that can be quite heart wrenching, ultimately it ties back to just trying to be too responsive to the system and not to put your own aspirations, efforts into play in unique ways.

And one of the eye-openers for me is we went into the pandemic, about eight weeks in, I was asked by a whole bunch of these survey companies to say, can you include some network related questions right into our multi-multi company survey?

And they let me put it in was just open-ended question. Kind of tell me about your experience with COVID. Cause we've never seen anything like this, it's a huge structural shift and how people are living in their lives. 

Normally you do that in a survey, it can go out to a hundred thousand people and it probably gets three pages of open-ended Jack's back. Nobody feels these things out. But in this case we were getting hundreds of pages back, and very deep thoughtful answers, and what was fascinating is they would go in two completely different directions.

So the first one I would read would be thank the Lord I don't have my commute anymore. I'm talking to my significant other, my children like me, I'm exercising, eating, sleeping, whatever it may be, and thank goodness that this has happened. And then the very next one would be equally and passionate would be like, oh my gosh, where did my commute go? It was the only time I had to think down, online constantly. Can't believe this. I've got to get back to the office, whatever it may be. 

But what hit me in that is for that second group, it's not the commute. It's as if they gave up control of the situation too quickly. They weren't clear on what was important to them and they got overrun and I think that's going to be a problem, it's even more important as we go forward. I mean, people would do silly things, like use the train schedule say, well, I've got to get out of the office. You know what I mean? Before now, suddenly we don't have that.

Or all of these little structures that we use, if we're not putting that into play, we're going to get overrun, And people are going to kind of fall into this posture if they're not more thoughts than to your points.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
I think that structure really helps. Now. One of the concerns that I hear, Rob is a consistent theme of it's my boss, who is initiating this or the CEO that starts the day with an early email or a expectation of results. I wonder, is there a way to be able to manage the overwhelm if you feel it's your manager and your boss or the organizational culture that causes the overwhelm?

Rob Cross: 
Yeah. I mean, I think there's a thousand little tricks that people discovered. So one of my favorite women in the interviews that we conducted was this very fiery young woman that said, you know, I had this boss was driving me crazy with things that were kind of one-off things. One off request. He had no idea of the amount of ask he was making. and I think this is the really big deal, right? Is that because of the collaborative intends to be at the work, leaders make tasks that looks small, but the actual task looks small, but because now we have to get buy-in and coordinate and resource and everything else from so many people, the collaborative footprint has grown right in ways that the leaders don't understand half the time what they're asking anymore.

And so her, way to fight back on this, she said, he asked me something, it went over my top of my to do list, I couldn't figure out how to get all this done. And so I just drew this impact effort grid out. One access was what's the impact. This thing is going to have the other access is what's the effort.

I think it came from Stephen Covey. But she was using it as a device to say, we're going to plot this thing out, and if it's high effort, low impact, we're either gonna not do it or we're going to figure out a different way to do it. And she said, the first time we did it, he was a little bit taken back. But then after that it became a device for them to manage the work load. Rather than just absorb it all or worse yet, absorb it and turn it into your team and burn them out. And she said the most amazing thing happened was that number one, they oftentimes figured out completely different ways to get the requirement done that wouldn't have been apparent if they hadn't had that conversation. And number two, what she found out later is that the boss knew he was going to face this silly impact effort grid. Every time he asked something. So he stopped asking.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
That's really important Rob, because we spend a lot of time in organizations on things that are not contributing to the priorities and the objectives. And as you said, the boss might think this is not going to take much time it's just five minutes, while it takes a lot of time and takes focus away from those key priorities.

Rob Cross: 
Or your own wellbeing, you started off that question around, why are people burning out? Well, really big piece of it is increased demands of work, but also the COVID has kind of taken us out of all these groups that kept us hold to begin with. Athletic groups, religious, poetry, book clubs, I mean all sorts of things.

 And suddenly that gets sacrificed to right on the margin. But, I'll tell you the other one that I see a lot of today that's become a really big deal. And again, it's these flattening structures. It's that problem with agile work is it looks good in terms of the teams and the way they're working as strums, but it's again, missing the collaborative overwhelm and in different ways.

So what we're seeing in the team level is what I call priority overwhelm, where there are too many different tasks coming from stakeholders who themselves aren't coordinating coming into the teams and, people don't know what to do. There's no visibility into it. I've heard great stories on this one where, many people would just say, okay, I've got five stakeholders, they're bombarding me with requests. And they would either, pre COVID take them into a room. Where they had stakeholder 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 posted notes underneath. Okay, this is what you're asking me for. So what you're asking me for, and then they would draw a line vertically or horizontally there and say, here's the capacity of my team, how do we solve this problem together? And that for people to do that virtually too. But they're just kind of put in the conversation back, and say, we need to kind of coordinate how we're getting this done, versus just absorbing it. The absorbers they're just going to implode at some point.

You just can't do it anymore. There's too much stuff coming at people. But I think as we go, that's one of the areas that we've got to get really better at is understanding these collaborative tasks and the footprint of the tasks cause people would never overspend their budget. There's a great clarity in how much money you have to spend, but we will overspend our employees constantly because it's not transparent.

We can't understand that as leaders, where all this collaborative times going. And we've got to get better at applying some analytics to be able to help people just make better decisions, It's just this and visibility to a lot of ways. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 
That's an outstanding way of putting it, Rob. We don't overspend the budget, but we are overtaxing the individuals in our teams and our organizations, which is contributing to a lot of, stress, additional anxiety. Part of what's contributing to the turnover that organizations are facing and collaboration, or ineffective collaboration is in part a contributor to it. The other thing that you mentioned, it aligns well with, I just had a conversation with professor James Heskett uh, Harvard business school. He also talks about the same problems we're having with the supply chain because of the just-in-time approaches, organizations having cut out so much of the middle management are having issues with collaboration and overstressing the systems.

Rob Cross: 
For me, at an individual level. When I talk to people about this is we do the same thing to ourselves and not just work at home. We schedule it out and everything can work. Every last aspect of your life works perfectly. It could probably work, but that never happens, a child gets sick or you run into a traffic jam on the way in when we were commuting, I mean, you name it. There's just these little things that happened or surges in work are going to naturally happen. People are going to shift expectations. And so it's one of the things that I've talked to people a lot about is finding ways to create some buffer mechanism in your mind at least as you're planning things out and doing things. 

And I find that with the efficient collaborators, one of the things they're much more likely to do is strategically calendar Friday night or Sunday night with a one week time horizon and typically about a three month time horizon. So they're kind of planning week to week, but then they're also planning, okay, this is where I want to go with my career. And this is where I want to be in terms of the capabilities I want to use the values I want to experience. And using that approach with a 10, 15% buffer in mind is a really smart thing. Because then you're absorbing any surge that happens, or if it doesn't happen, you've got time to invest.

We have far more control, I'm convinced of this over what we do than we give ourselves. The people that get in trouble and they fall into the reactive posture, a little bit too much and like you say, they become leaner and leaner and so it just, doesn't work anymore. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 
It takes that planning, structure, and discipline. Now you also mentioned, networks are really important for the fast movers, what role do networks play?

Rob Cross: 
Yeah, so great question. And to the second half of the books for me it was around, thinking about, once we understand how people get this time back, really being cautious about understanding what they're doing, that's enabling them to scale and kind of live life more on their terms, that has impact there. And so what we found is that high performers are never distinguished by a big network with ever statistically only in things like residential real estate sales, kind of transactional things, just purely the size of the network predicts the success. They are instead defined by less than insular network or more bridging ties into other pockets of the organization or other groups, such that they maintain a greater ability. It's that bringing together different ideas, different possibilities that really matter. My work shown for, you know, 23, 24 years now, it's the second biggest predictor of a high-performance it's more structurally diverse network, on many, many levels. 

But what I was interested in with the interviews is to understand what does that mean? What do you tell busy people? Do you just go out and talk to people that are in different areas all the time, or, what's going on. And what we learned in that I would ask people to tell me about their career defining accomplishments. So just one, maybe two things they did that put them on this upwardly mobile path and then not what they did, but what was the role of relationships, the connections that enabled them to see the possibility, scale their accomplishments, supplement skill gaps, kind of all these things that made that success happen and started an upward spiral. 

And what I learned in that was a couple of pretty important things. One is the more successful people, they tend to spend about 20 to 25% more time in exploration with others. So they're preserving time to reach out to others and say, how could we work together? Or tell me about your work and we understand if there's a synergy here that we can deliver a greater financial transaction or consultants solution or something like that. 

So it's a form of networking where they're not going out and saying, "gosh, I need your help", or it's certainly not looking to tap an invisible power structure. It's exploration. And over time they do that enough. They start to have a sense of how they could integrate other people when opportunities come around. And that's where the differences. 

It's in these really small moments. Most people's career defining accomplishments, or if you track your own accomplishments back to this release inception point, usually it's a tiny moment where you see something pop up on LinkedIn and you lean into it, or you're about to walk out of a meeting or off of a zoom call and you say, wait, wait, just one more minute.

 And that seeds the idea that then becomes something substandard. The people that have throwed relationships and begun to understand what capabilities are around me, how could I work with others? They see those opportunities different. They don't see the consulting opportunity just on their expertise, they see it on how they could leverage others, and they win Just because they're accomplishing things, a bigger substance, and they're doing it in a way that's also building a network that over time starts to bring them opportunities. So it's at that level that, I think it's really important to undertand what those people are doing with the time, it's not they're buying time back and just adding more networking in, their networking in a way that starts to create scale and then the ability to truly differentiate over time.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
And I wonder, Rob, what has been the impact and what will be impact of virtual and hybrid on cultivating these networks.

Rob Cross: 
Yeah. Most people are struggling because they're applying the same paradigm to building connections. So it was won with one of the investment banks early in this process and they said, well, we have this whole new group from Dartmouth coming in. How are we going to get the Dartmouth people connected to the Dartmouth people, because they were just used of football game or baseball game or the song to get people together. 

And so they're thinking about networking is always just a social activity to connect people that might like each other, and in fact, I was sitting there saying, how do you even know you want the Dartmouth people to talk to the Dartmouth people? What we know about my performers is they build more diversity, and structured diversity into what they're doing. What we're finding in the consortia is, the more that you're intentional about the kind of connection you're trying to form, the specific thing you're looking for from that relationship, you can craft experiences in a virtual context that are very effective at bringing people in.

 Our work on transitions showed that there are five kinds of connections that people need to build those relationships that increases the odds, they stay longer, they're successful, once you understand that, then you can give people a playbook and say, you as an incomer and you, as your leader here are the five kinds of ties, help make some introductions, help start these conversations, use coal versus bush, like we talked about early. And you actually find that there's pretty good. ability, even in virtual times to pull people up, I'll give you another one that I hear constantly is the water cooler moments. Like any of us, who've been around a water cooler for 20 years, but we keep talking about this thing.

 And what you're obviously saying is the serendipitous exchange that happens. So one of my favorite interviews, and this is where the investment banker and he ran a group of, I believe it was traders number it was like 40 of them or something like that. I won't get the number. But he said, you gotta imagine this kind of graph facts and don't try to mimic, you know, the pandemic hit, I was panicked. I couldn't see my people. I didn't know what was going on. And I was worried about innovation, faltering people, knowing what each other was doing. And he said, his wife convinced him to do this thing that he called the Friday roads. On a Friday afternoon, just about to turn off the computer, he sent an email out to this group of, I think it was 40.

 And said, okay, here's my stem for this week. And it's kind of what I learned, how I agree with you this week. Here's the bud, the flower. Here's the cool thing that happens to me And then here's a thorn, right? There's the thing I messed up or I wish I'd done differently. And you know, to hear him tell the story is really funny.

So I hit the send button and I could feel people laughing at me and I said, oh no, you guys have got to do too now. And so over the course of maybe an hour, everybody's responding off of this email with their own growth opportunity, cool thing, thorn.

 And he said within a couple of weeks, as this norm got down, he saw more serendipitous opportunities emerged that he'd ever saw when they were face-to-face. and it was just a structured way of introducing possibilities of serendipity because people would say, oh, you're doing this, I'm doing this that wasn't transparent before.

 And he said that, having that thorn in there, here's the thing I messed up. He felt bred a level of authenticity that had never just in the group. People being willing to kind of say, here's things that aren't going well and get help. And so I think that's the real key, It's not looking at collaboration in a virtual context and saying, we need a zoom call cause that's driving by the tool. It's rather stepping back and saying, I need to promote serendipity or I need to promote trust. either things that you're really intentional about curating the experience and will never be as good as face to face. There's always something there, but it can be a heck of a lot better than if we're just throwing the same tools, right at the problem as we go.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
What a great way for the, leader in that case, serving as an example in making that serendipity happen. But one of the challenges I found Rob is a lot of people are trying to duplicate the in-person experience on zoom. I know you also had a conversation with Aaron Hurst. Aaron makes fun of the water cooler conversations. And I agree with him in that some companies have been doing zoom water cooler conversations that are extremely awkward, forgetting what is the purpose? What do you want to accomplish? And if you want serendipity, there are other ways to approach it.

 And this is a great way of approaching that serendipity now how else can leaders help networks within their teams and organization connect more effectively?

Rob Cross: 
One of the things that I hear a lot about, and it's become a big deal for me in this next book is just the issues around wellbeing. So let me kind of grab that one for a second and how people are doing today. And it's put a burden on leaders that every, company's out there giving some kind of tool, kit, or tool set to say, talk with your people about this, or get more time off it would be more kind of clear and policies and things that they can fall back on. one of the things that we spend a lot of time on and part with this book and an apartment, the next one is understanding kind of the relational drivers of wellbeing. So what is it that creates a happier person. Where I don't mean happy kind of giddy in the moment, but just these people that are saying life's going pretty well over time, I'm in a good place. 

And the thing that we saw in that we can see very clearly how connections play a role in terms of when people decide to make an effort to improve their physical health and they persist, it's, not an informational problem, or you wouldn't see new year's Eve resolutions fall away by January 23rd.

It's really know what they need to do, but it's putting that activity in a set of connections and certain things around it, that tend to create the persistence as an example. We learned a lot about kind of ways that connections impact health, resilience, purpose, and growth, That leaders can kind of stimulate to create a context that people want to be a part of.

 But the biggest thing that surprised me, was the degree of stress that people were under. And so I was on the very first interview in this work and it's a very successful life sciences executive in London. And she was telling me at the start, she said Rob, I was the person in high school that would dodged gym every chance I could and I wanted nothing to do with physical activity. And she said, I hit my late thirties where this typically happens for people. You know, you're, absorbed in work, family responsibilities, take off and fallen out of groups that kept you whole to begin with. And she said, my doctor said, I've got to do something about this stern warning from the doctor.

 So she started walking around this park in London, and she'd began about vendor a couple of people. They were doing the same thing. So she started walking with them and that emerged into doing a charity walk and then they started running and then ran into a charity run.

And you flash forward 10 years to when I was interviewing her. And she was describing how at this point in your life, she was going on vacations with her husband, where they would pick a spot where they would do a marathon first, and then the vacation, and this was the person that dodged gym. And what she said is that I had nothing to do with the activity.

I mean, being a runner gave her a sense of identity that pushed back on work, but it was really the authenticity of the relationships with the people involved and the fact that they were coming at life from very different places that kept perspective for her. That was really critical. But then I stopped and I said, well, what got you to this point to begin with, where you had to take such action and she just paused. Dead silence for 30, 45 seconds. And then she finally just said, just life I guess, you couldn't quite even put her finger on it.

 And that really led me to dig into that. And it has led me to this idea of what I'm calling micro stresses that I think are ways that was alluding to earlier. Stress comes out as every day through these small touch points. Since a colleague that's, misaligned with what we need to do when you're worried about how are you going to rectify that?

 Or you see a team member that needs to be coached for the third time. And you're worried about how to I keep engagement. A note from an aging parent, that you can't tell, what are you going to do to solve that problem. And the issue today is that we're hit with 20, 25 30 of these as we go through the day, none of them are insurmountable on their own, but we go home exhausted and we can't even any more really say why or what's happening. 

One of the things that I think, leaders have to get better is when we're looking at wellbeing or pieces like that, there's a whole idea that is focused around mindfulness meditation. Those elements that are absolutely important, but at the heart of it, they only allow you to persist in that, in the context that you've built.

 And what I'm finding with the people that are doing better is they're better able to kind of lean into the positive side. The things that promote health, but they're also really good at understanding where are these micro stresses coming from and how do I shift my context in a way I can better thrive today?

I think that's, to me, one of the biggest things that organizations and leaders have got to pay attention to, create a context that's gonna kind of keep people engaged, especially in light of the resignations that everybody is predicting worried about right now.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
It is definitely a big stressor and people's lives and that wellbeing is really important. I'm glad both you cover it in beyond collaboration overload and you are doing more work for your next book on it. I wonder with that said, Rob, you have a lot of demands on your time both with respect to collaboration and tapping into networks that can be positive for you and you need to maintain your wellbeing.

What do you do for your own wellbeing?

Rob Cross: 
I'll say one of the things I had to learn to guard against is, we were talking about the servant based mindset leader earlier for me, the overload. When I talk about these triggers, it's driven by a need for accomplishment. Like if I see a five minute window, I'll try to jam 60 minutes of stuff into it. And, I'll completely ignore the two to three hours of coordination I have to do to get other people engaged with me and then be grumbling six weeks later because this thing is way more work than it should be. And I completely lose sight of the fact that I started it to begin with. I saw this thing well-intended, should it be done, could be done, but I just ignored the collaborative footprint and it kills me right over time. I think about this all the time. I still do it. and I had to kind of make a deal with my wife that I would not take on anything. And so I talked to her first so that aren't real on me, but I think like the chapter that's on those beliefs, some of these triggers that lead us to jump in, like that's a really important piece for us all, it's an accomplishment, status, fear, influence, all of us have one or more of these things that drive us into unproductive tendencies that I think is critical.

But then for me, I think it's putting the structure in. So I've gotten to be an avid cyclist. I bike about 150 miles a week with a similar, bunch of old guys that are way out of shape and trying to convince themselves that they're better, but it's the same thing as the marathon, it's the authenticity of those relationships, spending time with a mailman, an IT executive, people that see life differently and it creates a dimension. If I had one thought for your listeners is, people need at least two and usually three groups like that, whether it's physical, religious, old friends, book clubs, whatever, it's those things that create dimensionality in our lives, and let us rise above some of these micro stresses. We're going to get hit with so many of them no matter what, that we can only deal with some of them directly, another way we have to learn to deal with it is by rising above it. and of course again, that's what I was referencing earlier.

That's what COVID has hurt us. It's pulled us out of all these groups. we're used to thinking about the stress just as the volume of demands that are on us, but it's also our coping kind of gone away to.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
That's a really important point, Rob, in that there are a lot of things that the leaders and organizations can do differently. However, a lot of it with respect to this collaboration overload or, advancing the networks and maintaining our wellness rests on our shoulders, and what you just mentioned is an important element outside of work that we need to prioritize in order to maintain our wellness. So it's not pointing fingers at others and what they need to do. It's tapping into these opportunities outside of work. This is not something that can be initiated, even if we work in the healthiest environment possible.

Rob Cross: 
Right. And in some cases, even some of these places I interviewed them and they were like, know, greatest place to work. Very wonderful places. But those places, if they become all absorbing and they take you away from other things that create a little bit of dimensionality, can be just as bad, and it happens like I had wall street banks, obviously, in my sample. And they're tough because everything's about money, right? There's not a tremendous amount of purpose in what they do. And you kind of expect that you see it, they're living life in a way that they justify by taking care of their family. What surprised me is you see the same problem in the high end hospitals, for example, Where the physicians is entirely about work and family, at least they have a little bit more purpose, and what they're doing, they're advancing science or they're they're impacting clinicians, but they struggle in the same way. Right. As without that dimensionality in your life, then things take on much greater significance, right?

The vagaries of work and again, one of my favorite interviews and that line was in a neuroscientist top hospital in the country, very well respected and what he did. And as he went through COVID he started playing guitar again, which he'd done in high school. And he was describing it to me of this huge ground of spaces.

I'm hanging out with 20 year olds again, and it's just all new purchase on life. And this is somebody that's, one of the most well-regarded scientists out there, but it's that dimensionality, It's really critical to preserve, and it plays back into work too. It's not just that it's making you somebody different outside of work, but you show up more present and where people can connect with you on different levels, and you're somebody others want to engage because of that aspect of your life too.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
And it is one of those things that we need to prioritize, as you mentioned, because of COVID and a lot of those factors, many of us have cut it out of our lives and that has by itself cost more anxiety and stress. Now in addition to your book, are there other resources that you typically find yourself recommending or leadership practices that you find yourself recommending for people as they want to lead more effectively and be better at their collaboration and maintaining wellness in their life?

Rob Cross: 
I mean, for me, I won't name specific books, but it's becoming more aware of internal triggers, especially that manifest in how you interact with others. You know what I mean? And so I think that, to me is the biggest thing for people to be successful today is to kind of reflect on their own, personal tendencies.

 Some of the books that I obviously love right now were around, understanding the relational roles connections and happy longevity like the Harvard longevity studies are showing that. When really every book out there stew Friedman's work, I think is fantastic on the spot that all talk about the importance of relationships and leading kind of a life that's seen as meaningful or just living longer. And so those are kind of the resources I would be kind of leaning back into. There's a ton of them, not, one comes to mind, but just different studies along that front.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
It is really important. And Dan Buettner, had also looked at the blue zones for longevity. That's really important. And one of the unfortunate parts is that not just because of COVID, but even, pre social media over the past 30 years. It's most specifically in the U S we have fewer of those deep connections to individuals, that is really impacting our mental wellbeing.

Rob Cross: 
When I, doing the wellbeing work, one of the things I would ask about in these interviews was to tell me about a stretch in life that was difficult for you. So maybe sometimes it was a catastrophic thing, but sometimes I didn't get a promotion. And then I would ask people, who did you talk to?

 How did you rely on others to get through this? And what we learned through that is that people fall back on other's nape pretty predictable ways. When they need resilience, you turn to people for empathy to see a perspective in a situation that isn't as bad as you think of you see a path forward or just a lap that the absurdity, for who you are.

 And the people that have those connections, they're going to weather adversity much better, If they have that to fall back on than people that don't, um, interestingly enough, to me too, is just being aware of what you need. And this is a little bit of what I meant in terms of understanding your desires to some people, need empathy and that's it.

 Other people need empathy and then a path forward. Some people just like to laugh at the absurdity, but the more attuned you are to that, the better able you are to fall back on those relationships and productive way.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
And that's why I really look forward to also reading your next book. But before we get to that for the audience to find out more about your book resources, connection, where can they go to Rob?

Rob Cross: 
First place for me, it would be robcross.org. we've put a lot of resources out there that are generated from the consortia, but also even just summary videos on the book are things that just help people consume the ideas. So if they don't want to go into kind of a full book level, discourse on it, second place I would strongly recommend is the group that I run called the connected commons.

And that's a consortium of spending about 150 organizations that helps shape and create access for these, analytical findings, like the book and other things. But that's a really wonderful community just to hear about what others are doing with these ideas, how they're putting them into play in different ways.

So this would be the two things that come to mind. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 
It is incredible how many videos and great articles and resources you have on the two sites. I would strongly recommend for people to read the book and most specifically reflect on it because I think it's important for our own wellbeing, as well as for the organization's wellbeing. And, I want to end with a quote from you, Rob.

You said a collaboration overload feels great until it doesn't, you feel you're in the middle of things being productive until it's total overwhelm, we can all be busy, but are you busy in a way that is getting you closer to who you want to be? Thank you so much, Rob Cross for the book for the work and for the conversation on partnering leadership. 

Rob Cross: 
Thank you. It was such a privilege to be here.