Networks and a different kind of power

I’m having coaching at the moment to sort a few things out in my head after a difficult time at the beginning of the year. Also because I’ve stepped into a full-time job for the first time ever, at the age of 40, and there’s some reconfiguring to do. Some of this reconfiguring relates to my previous post about a networked mindset.

Getting started

11 years ago (2 years after I left the Nesta Creative Pioneer Programme) I left my (Nesta funded) fashion business, with no clear idea of what I was going to do instead. All I did know was that I wanted to use my design training for social change rather than catwalks. Luckily some of my peers on the Creative Pioneer Programme were already shaping the field of public sector service design so I got involved in that. From that moment on though, I was out on my own. I was labelled a freelancer, mostly working as a service designer (there weren’t many of us around at that time) and I worked at a variety of organisations on different days of the week – (thinkpublic, FutureGov, Snook, Social Innovation Camp, Participle…).

Image from — http://modern-women.tumblr.com/

Sense of power

I didn’t have any influence or power though, or not of the usual status-driven kind. I was just me. I didn’t work for a recognisable brand, or an organisation that could give me credentials. I didn’t work for a Foundation, where you automatically gain influence because you are seen as a route to money, or can use money to invest in things that build up your credibility by association. And I didn’t have any letters after my name. People that work inside organisations might take for granted how useful that can be for simply getting a reply to an email or a “yes” to a coffee request. It’s amazing how the world opens up to you, and what you have access to, just because you work somewhere.

“What power have you got.?

Where did you get it from.?”

Tony Benn

My only credentials were a Fashion BA and yet I found myself in meetings with Chief Executives of local NHS Trusts, getting them on board with something that they mostly hadn’t heard of (service design). I was always the undefinable freelancer ( I really dislike this word), never able to explain what I did, and never with any kind of relevant “expert” knowledge to bring to the table. I had to be incredibly humble, curious and vulnerable. It also made me dislike the notion of “professionalism” even further. I think being human trumps being professional any day.

Sense of self

Now, in 2017 I’m looking back at these last 11 years and reflecting on how much energy (and care and love) I have needed to use to create my own power. How much I have invested in looking outwards and all around me, and into relationships. I’m grateful to feel so “networked” and be aware of, and connected to many different worlds, but I think it might also have been at a cost. Maybe I’ve slightly lost sight of myself — which I’m working on!

So that’s my little motto, said in a rather truncated way, that whilst being Of The Network is important, so is being connected to your self.

I’ve also realised, having re-read this post, that I sound so ridiculously unaware of my privilege. I am very privileged, and yet amongst my peers in my work world, I’m one of only a few that didn’t go to Oxbridge or straight into a think tank or City job — associations that afford you all kinds of social capital. I also realised that I wrote this post because people often ask me “how did you build your networks?.” I never intentionally set out to do this, I think it just naturally happened that I built lots of trusted relationships with people across very different contexts because I was meeting people as another human being, with no pretence of expertise. If you want to build trusted networks of relationships, be authentic!

As Catherine Howe reminded me, networked power differs from hierarchal power because it is about relevance and contribution.

Run UK Portfolio at National Lottery Community Fund, Co-founder of the Point People, Policy Fellow IIPP, Founder Stewarding Loss, International Futures Forum.

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