What makes a good network leader?

Leading a network is much more complicated than advancing a single organization. Many successful organizational leaders are not good network leaders. Organizational leaders are often accustomed to making a decision and then having it implemented by paid staff. Network leaders get organizational leaders to work together without merging into a single organization – meaning they neither make decisions independently nor have the power to mandate their implementation.

Conveners and long-term leaders of social impact networks should have different characteristics. Conveners “identify and bring all the legitimate stakeholders to the table.”[1] According to Barbara Gray, network conveners ideally:

  • have convening power,
  • have legitimacy among stakeholders,
  • appear unbiased,
  • have facilitation skills, and
  • can identify all the relevant stakeholders.

Network conveners are often but not always funders. They have the power to call organizations to the table and encourage them to form a network. One example from our case research is the Re-AMP network. The Garfield Foundation acted as a convener.  They brought together about 20 energy sector organizations in the Midwest to work on the reduction of climate emissions. They funded their initial conversations and were the first funder of the network.

Donna Wood and Barbara Gray[2] identify different ways that conveners influence networks. First, conveners respond to the requests of stakeholders for their leadership. Informally, they do this by facilitation, where they help stakeholders negotiate a common goal and understanding of the problem domain. Formally, they respond to stakeholders by lending their reputation to the new collaboration. Second, they recruit stakeholders to network. When they don’t have official authority, they use persuasion to convince stakeholders to participate. If they have the power to do so, they can mandate participation in the network.

Before a network begins, conveners recruit members, host meetings, communicate the work to the public and, collect and analyze data.[3]  Many times, however, conveners are not the eventual leaders of the network. Sometimes they are funders who do not want to be involved in the day-to-day and give up the role. Other times, leadership shifts to another organization that has more capacity. Network leaders have a broad set of responsibilities, including:

  • project management,
  • facilitating decision-making,
  • conflict resolution,
  • guiding meetings,
  • recruiting new members to join the network,
  • navigating network change,
  • overseeing relationships with external stakeholders, and
  • utilizing resources of the network to make a broader social impact.

Leading social impact networks is too big of a job for a single person. Some of the network leaders we’ve worked with recognize their strengths and weaknesses. They build a team that can do the work together. Sometimes this means hiring staff with different talents, but other times it means allowing other network members to share the responsibility. Tom Lasley, the longtime leader of Learn to Earn Dayton, for example, talked about his relationship with Shannon Cox, the superintendent of the Montgomery County Education Service. One of the reasons he has been able to take on a more significant role in some of the two-generation work that the network has moved into is because Shannon took on the responsibility of coordinating the monthly meeting of the 16 superintendents in Montgomery county.

To do the work of social impact, an essential characteristic of network leaders is trustworthiness. When they are leading the network, there should be no doubt that they are a midwife to social impact, not their agenda. As Brint Milward says, “networks move at the speed of trust.” When that trust is broken, chaos and splintering ensue.

In sum, network leadership is more complicated than organizational leadership. Conveners and long-term network leaders have different jobs. Network leaders, in the long term, assemble a team that can handle many kinds of work. And, above all, network leaders inspire trust and build a collaborative culture.


[1] Gray, Barbara. Collaborating: Finding Common Ground for Multiparty Problems. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989. 71.

[2] Wood, Donna J., and Barbara Gray. “Toward a Comprehensive Theory of Collaboration.” Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 27 (1991): 139–62. https://doi.org/10.1177/0021886391272001.

[3] Cooper, Katherine R, Rong Wang, Anne-Marie Boyer, Jack L. Harris, Joshua-Paul Miles, and Michelle Shumate. “The Role of Conveners in Cross-Sector Collaborative Governance.” ARNOVA, San Diego, CA, 2019.