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Sage-Gavin: Why it all comes down to connection

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Eva Sage-Gavin
HR Leadership columnist Eva Sage-Gavin is a distinguished HR thought leader and former CHRO with more than three decades of broad experience in Fortune 500 global consumer, technology and retail corporations. She currently serves as the senior managing director for Accenture’s global talent & organization consulting practice and as a technology Board Director. She can be emailed at [email protected].

“Be caring. Curious. Courageous. Competent.”

So much has changed since I began my first column for HRE with those words, four years ago. The shifts have been seismic, upending our lives in ways we never could have imagined. At the same time, care, curiosity, courage and competence are perhaps more important than ever, and I’d like to add another word to the list: connection.

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If nothing else, the last few years have been an object lesson in how intimately we’re all connected and how much we crave connection. I believe that leadership for the future–across industries, countries and generations–begins and ends with connection.

As I come full circle on my four years as author of this leadership column, here is my “Connect Four”: four reasons why connection is an essential element of strong leadership and why it is at the core of our call to action in the toughest of times, when our lives have changed forever:

Connection drives career growth

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received is to think of your career and network as a circle, rather than a ladder.

Indeed, in my professional life spanning 40 years, six global corporations, three boards of directors and 3 million miles traveled (and counting!), I’ve learned that the journey is rarely linear, and success is less about climbing and more about growing.

As a leader, your circle–your experiences, your skills and, most importantly, your networks–expands over time.

As I’ve moved, I’ve taken my network along with me and have been reminded time and again that it’s not a one-way street. Those connections grow from being nurtured and, in turn, they can interconnect, creating new alliances and innovations that would not have been possible any other way.

A new demographic study of chief executives found that newly appointed CEOs had much more diverse prior experience than their predecessors, coming from different parts of the company and different roles within the C-suite. The research also found an increased emphasis on skills such as agility, empathy, driving the organizational purpose and fostering inclusion. It’s clear that new leadership profiles have emerged as a result of adversity: The CEOs of today and tomorrow are evidence of the power of tapping into new forms of leadership skills to move companies and people forward. 

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Connection drives collaboration

The pandemic taught us how important it is to come together at speed in the face of a crisis. Most companies never included pandemics at the top of their global risk assessments, and many struggled with how to respond, in part because agility in these situations depends on intense collaboration across organizations and ecosystems.

See also: Tackling the ‘connection’ challenge of COVID-19

That interdependence is why connection is at the heart of any company’s future success, whether it’s connection with your customers, connection within your organization or connection with a broad group of stakeholders.

The skills to support these kinds of connections are highly sought after: Research from the World Economic Forum emphasizes the growing importance of collaborative skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility.

Collaboration goes beyond the bottom line. I’ve been privileged to work with academic and public-private partnerships–including those at Santa Clara University focused on developing diverse board directors and with the Advisory Council at Stanford University’s Michelle Clayman Institute for Gender Research. These initiatives are working to open doors and foster connections for underrepresented groups.

Connection drives change

Organizations are being forced to transform faster than ever, and so-called “compressed” transformations are now the norm. At the same time, C-suite leaders say their transformation efforts are often hindered by organizational silos.

When different parts of an organization aren’t connected, change is nearly impossible. The same is true for an organization’s people. When we talk about skilling workers and staying digitally current as a company, we’re really talking about giving people the tools to be agile and to remain connected. And that connection fosters lifelong learning and a capacity for reinvention and renewal, not to mention personal and organizational resiliency.

Accenture Chief Executive Officer Julie Sweet recently spoke to Fortune about how technology makes it possible for new hires to feel connected to their work, even if they have never set foot in an office. “The way you build connections is through experiences,” she said.

I couldn’t agree more: I began my career as a woman in technology in the 1980s, and I can tell you that we never could have imagined the extent to which digital capability would become the key to connection and the catalyst for changing lives.

Connection drives commitment

I recently attended a G100 BoardExcellence event and was inspired by leaders talking about the power of purpose. One line particularly resonated with me: “Firms with strong vision, values and beliefs still need an explicit purpose and compelling corporate narrative, which, when strategically tapped, can energize workers.”

Leaders are increasingly recognizing the importance of strengthening their organization’s commitment to a purpose-driven mission, and delivering on those goals has to be driven by the CEO and embedded throughout the organization.

In my experience, connection drives this commitment by ensuring that sustainable, authentic purpose is part of the fabric of the organization and is clearly communicated and deeply embraced. When companies are connected, everyone is invested in achieving that purpose. As employees change jobs at a record pace and companies grapple with the Great Resignation, we are seeing the power of purpose in attracting and retaining talent.

Author and social scientist Brene Brown defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued.”

Writing this column for the last four years has been an honor and an experience that I will carry with me going forward. While this is my last post here, I look forward to staying connected.