Leading a Network Doesn’t Have To Be Like Herding Cats

Research offers a guide to effective collaboration.

What does effective collaboration look like and does leadership matter? If leadership is important, what specific skills and qualities produce successful collaborative efforts?

A recent IBM Center report, Effective Leadership in Network Collaboration: Lessons Learned from Continuum of Care Homeless Programs, tackles these questions by examining collaboration within the context of homeless policy networks, a policy area receiving significant attention in recent years. While this report specifically investigates the role of leading in continuum of care (CoC) homeless programs and the leadership behaviors that matter in achieving successful collaborative outcomes, the lessons are broadly applicable to other networks involving multiple government and non-government players.

According to the U .S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a CoC homeless program is “a community plan to organize and deliver housing and services to meet the specific needs of people who are homeless as they move to stable housing and maximize self-sufficiency. It includes action steps to end homelessness and prevent a return to homelessness.” HUD identifies four necessary parts of a homeless continuum:

  • Outreach, intake, and assessment to identify service and housing needs and provide a link to the appropriate level of both
  • Emergency shelter to provide an immediate and safe alternative to sleeping on the streets, especially for homeless families with children
  • Transitional housing with supportive services to allow for the development of skills that will be needed in permanent housing
  • Permanent supportive housing with services to provide individuals and families with an affordable place to live, if needed

The authors of this report collected data from a survey of 237 homeless program networks across the nation, as well as in-depth reviews and interviews of four CoC homeless networks in three states—Texas, Utah, and New York. The analysis provides a deeper understanding of what effective collaboration looks like and why some networks are more effec­tive.

The report describes measures of effective collaboration that public managers can use to assess performance at two levels: network and community. Both levels reflect the competing interests of two stakeholder groups: network members and community stakeholders. 

Elements of Effective Leadership

Another objective of this report is to create a leadership model for managers. The report develops such a model in the context of a networked environment with distinctions between a singular organization and a network. It is important to understand the leadership competencies necessary to function within a networked environment. Leaders must exhibit the right combination of task-oriented and relationship-oriented behaviors:

  • Task-oriented behaviors are focused on facilitating network goal achievement, such as identifying roles and responsibilities, holding network members accountable for performance, and putting plans into action.
  • Relationship-oriented behaviors place a greater focus on building positive social relations, such as motivating and inspiring network members and ensuring that the individual needs of members are carefully addressed.

Both behaviors are important for the effective management of a CoC homeless network.

Six Recommendations

The report presents six recommendations that will guide individuals charged with leading collaborative networks. These shed light on the leadership values that are primary drivers of public service collaborations.

Develop expertise. Managing networks requires the development of expertise in a subject matter policy area. This recommendation is centered on the idea that managers need to have extensive knowledge and expertise to be effective network leaders. Leaders of policy networks can gain knowledge of policy priorities and funding by becoming well connected to local stakeholders and existing national associations. Community connections provide the network leader with innovative ideas and local supports to accomplish goals and objectives. And for new network leaders, community stakeholders may possess institutional memory that can prove helpful in moving through the learning curve. It is also important for a network leader to stay up-to-date with new administrative procedures established by HUD, as well as informal rules that may be in effect.

Cultivate a collaborative culture. The collaborative process is about constant communication, building trust among network members, and cultivating a culture that welcomes both competition and collaboration. The research suggests that encouraging competition in the collaborative process can be a healthy exercise. In the context of federal homeless policy, networks compete for federal funding on a yearly basis. Competition can stimulate new ideas and solutions. At the same time, it is important to nurture and maintain a collaborative culture. Network leaders should be careful to continue communicating a common vision that will help the network achieve its goals and objectives as a collective.

Take risks. Previous research indicates that establishing ground rules and holding members accountable are important responsibilities of a network leader. In our research, we find that network leaders should not be afraid to risk relationships with other members of the network when necessary. That requires communicating expec­tations to network members. While that may risk potentially losing a member, a leader must be focused on the collective efforts of the network and realize that there are others ready to work.

Be an inclusive leader. Homelessness is a multidimensional problem requiring a cross-sector strategy that engages a wide array of programs and services. As a result, any intervention to eradicate homelessness will take real coordination and a diverse group of stakeholders. The same is true for other types of public services in response to difficult social problems. This reality requires network leaders to be inclusive of community stakeholders such as local governments, nonprofit shelters, food pantries, church-operated soup kitchens, school dis­tricts, and others.

Be agile and adaptive. Leadership is critical in balancing community needs while main­taining team spirit valued by network members, including policy makers, government manag­ers, nonprofit service providers, religious groups, advocacy groups, and so on. Networks evolve over time, in both positive and negative ways. Effective leaders understand these dynamics and adapt quickly in the best interest of the community.

Use performance indicators effectively. Network leaders must understand the value of data and information, and they must use them properly. Funding agencies, community stakeholders, and others rely on strong data to understand the severity of a problem, allocate funding, and develop objective metrics of success in implementing programs. Smart use of the data will help CoCs develop comparative analyses to understand where each network stands in the national standards. These data sources can be used to create an advantage when applying for funding or making a case for new programs. 

The report builds on the Center’s previous reports on collabora­tion and adds another example—homeless networks—where collaboration is being used to work across organizations and sectors. Previous IBM Center reports on collaborating across boundaries include Inter-Organizational Networks: A Review of the Literature to Information PracticeCollaboration Between Government and Outreach Organizations: A Case Study of the Department of Veterans Affairs; and Implementing Cross-Agency Collaboration: A Guide for Federal Managers.

Michael J. Keegan is the host of the IBM Center’s Business of Government Hour radio show and editor of The Business of Government magazine.