BSR Conference 2013

The Power of Networks

November 5-8 / San Francisco

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Leadership in Action: In Conversation with GlobeScan, Net Impact, and the Rockefeller Foundation

Leadership in Action Session / November 5, 2013


  • Chris Coulter, CEO, GlobeScan
  • Liz Maw, CEO, Net Impact
  • Heather Grady, Vice President, Foundation Initiatives, Rockefeller Foundation
  • Dunstan Allison-Hope, Managing Director, Advisory Services, BSR (Moderator)


  • Driven by the rise in technology, fatigue from hitting repetitive stumbling blocks, and a sense of urgency to solve global issues such as climate change, business has become more sophisticated in its approach to collaboration.

  • Organizations have more stakeholders than ever before, but the tools and skills at their disposal are stuck in the 20th century. They need new ways to address urgent stakeholder requests, and collaborations offer potential solutions.

  • Trust in government’s effectiveness in networks is down, and the private sector feels that government is not collaborative. Government needs to do a better job of branding itself as a safe harbor for collaboration.

Memorable Quotes

“We have hit the limits of individual performance for an organization. The notion of systemic change being a reality for us to respond to when it comes to making progress in sustainable development is absolutely true.” —Chris Coulter, GlobeScan

“The impact of a network is a lot harder to measure than, say, the impact of an early childhood development program or a skills readiness program, because what you are really trying to do is to change a mind-set or start a movement.” —Liz Maw, Net Impact

“Personal relationships are crucial [to effective networks]. I don’t think companies will collaborate unless they trust and respect each other.” —Heather Grady, The Rockefeller Foundation


Allison-Hope kicked off the session by providing a theoretical picture of networks. Networks can address complex challenges and accelerate change; they come in a myriad of forms, exist on both local and regional levels, and can mean many things to many people. He stated that this session’s purpose was to unpack this theoretical view and learn the practical aspects of building effective networks. Turning to the panel, Allison-Hope asked each of the guest speakers to describe a network they are involved in and its related challenges.

Coulter began by stating two self-evident truths: one regarding disruption and another on systemic change. He said that stakeholder expectations are changing, stakeholders are increasingly empowered, and previously marginalized stakeholder groups are now becoming geographically material. He posited that business needs to find new ways to address the urgency of stakeholder requests; the glass ceiling that is emerging is how to move from individual performance to making changes at a systems level. Coulter believes the answer lies in networks.

As an example, Coulter described his work with Unilever. They needed to turn the many issues from their vast network of stakeholders into solutions to deliver on their stated 2020 goals. Their solution was to create the Unilever Living Lab, an online collaborative platform that fosters broad engagement and information exchange; the company transforms this dialogue into new ideas.

Maw then spoke about Net Impact, a network started in the early 1990s by MBA students who passionately believed that businesses can do more than just make money. Their challenges lie in measuring their impact. One way is by polling their members to see if they are inspired and supported to make a difference (more than 80 percent responded yes). They also try to measure their real-world impact. More than 80 percent of MBA programs offer sustainability-related courses, compared to almost none in the 1990s, which Net Impact claims is largely attributable to their success.

Turning to solutions, Maw shared three tips for building successful networks. First, provide both soft and hard benefits, including tangible outcomes like career sources or training, for people to join. Second, hire local leaders. And third, include multiple stakeholders, especially those who are networkers themselves. Maw concluded that networks need to think about expansion from day one because the current stakeholders will not necessarily be those of tomorrow.

For her presentation, Grady jumped right to practical advice by enumerating eight lessons to building effective networks:

  • Avoid the “build it and they will come” mentality in the funding model. Be clear about purpose, needs of stakeholders, and capacity to participate
  • Use appropriate design for network structure, whether hub-and-spoke or something with dispersed nodes
  • Trust is key to effective networks, but building trust takes time
  • The management and governance of a network (regarding structure, how funds are raised, and who has decision-making authority) needs to be clear from the beginning. Without these things, networks tend to fail
  • Effective networks are working networks (those with a common purpose)
  • Networks need to be built on expertise in addition to curated knowledge
  • Networks are essentially communications platforms that require a strategy
  • A bigger network is not necessarily better; keeping networks manageable and focused sets them up for success.

As a concrete application of these lessons, Grady described the Rockefeller Foundation’s new initiative in Africa called Digital Jobs Africa, which aims to improve the lives of youth and their families through information and communications technology (ICT) and digital employment. While this program is inherently local, Grady said that taking it to scale would require a network of diverse stakeholders (private enterprise, impact sourcing organizations, and experts on labor rights) to articulate a shared vision and business strategy.

Following the presentations, Allison-Hope jumped in with a few questions for the panelists. His first question related to the human side of networks and whether aligning people tends to slows things down. Coulter answered that networks are unquestionably messy but that systemic change will only come through collaboration. Allison-Hope then asked about the challenges of creating networks across international boundaries. Grady shared that networks must be narrow by interest to be wide by geography. Finally, Allison-Hope asked whether technology is a boon to collaboration or if people tend to create like-minded pockets in the tech space. Maw responded that technology provides access to new stakeholders, such as the community-college students Net Impact engages through social media.

Before closing, Allison-Hope opened the floor to questions. Mike Noel, an analyst at Futerra, asked how to establish effective personal relationships. Maw responded that network design is very important since open, impersonal networks create different relationships than closed, clublike ones. Momo Mahadav, CEO of Maala, asked whether trust is dropping and what mechanisms might be able to compensate for it. Coulter shared that trust is not universally dropping and is still rather high for academics and NGOs, but he explained that there is a lack of trust in business. To build trust, companies need to clearly articulate their core business and social purposes. Allison-Hope wrapped up by thanking the audience and panelists.

Thank You Sponsors

Presenting Sponsor

Target Corporation logo

Premium Sponsor

GE logo

Executive Sponsor

Adobe logo

Convening Media Sponsor

Bloomberg Business Week logo

Participating Sponsors
Renewable Energy and Carbon Reduction Sponsor

Bonneville Environmental Foundation logo

Contributing Sponsors
Hackathon Sponsor

Qualcomm logo

Marketing and Media Sponsors