Network Leadership: Launching Sterling Network NYC

By Brooke Richie-Babbage

Director, Sterling Network NYC

Editor’s Note: This is the second piece in an occasional series of blog posts focused on the topic of network leadership. You can read the first post here .

The Sterling Network NYC is an exciting exploration of a hypothesis about how to create lasting, transformative change at the system level.

About a year and a half ago the Foundation began a journey to explore the answer to an intriguing question: What happens when you bring together a group of action-oriented systems leaders from multiple sectors, each of whom has an ability to influence and move resources, build their trust and capacity to work across difference, and provide space and support for them to think of powerful ways to collaborate to improve economic mobility at the intersection of racial equity?

Our hypothesis: The result will be seismic, lasting transformation of the entrenched problem of economic inequality.

The Sterling Network NYC is our endeavor to explore this hypothesis. We launched the Network in October 2017 with an incredible group of 48 multi-sector systems leaders. Over the past 18 months, we have brought this group together multiple times each year through a combination of multi-day immersive retreats, one-day convenings, workshops, and other activities. Our explicit goal has been to provide them with the opportunity, space, and support to explore, experiment, and iterate collaborative strategies for improving economic mobility in New York City.

We chose Networks as a strategy to explore because we believe that they represent a uniquely powerful approach for addressing society’s most complex, entrenched social problems—problems like the growing income and wealth gap, and the reduction in pathways to economic mobility.

Networks allow for a special form of collaboration. They reflect a way of working together that emphasizes the ability to understand both the root causes and the system-level implications of social problems, to work across difference, and to elevate the power and capacity of others over one’s own.

The four key principles of Network theory, as articulated by Jane Wei Skillen, illustrate the elements at the heart of successful Networks:

  • Mission over organization: The people and institutions involved must be willing and able to focus on the social change mission rather than on the immediate and particular needs of their organization.

  • Trust not control: Collective action is propelled by trust, not by clearly defined lines of authority or power.

  • Promote others, not self: Individuals and institutions demonstrate humility, emphasizing the needs and successes of the Network as a whole over their own.

  • Constellations not stars: The Network as a whole is the catalyst for and driver of change, not the individuals. No one person or institution can succeed alone.

As we considered our goal of tackling the challenge of economic mobility in New York City, we were drawn to Networks both because these core principles are aligned with our own philosophy about how collective change should occur, and because of the proven power of the strategy.  

For the past year we have worked to build and sustain a thriving Network, noting and reflecting on emerging outcomes.

In selecting inaugural Network members, we brought together individuals we call “systems leaders.” These are people who have demonstrated an ability to collaborate and partner effectively across differences of ideology, demography, and sector, and who have shown both an orientation towards addressing problems at the system level and a bias towards action.

We have created time and space for trust building, exploration, ideation and collaboration. Network participants come together for three multi-day, immersive retreats, as well as a one-day convening at the end of each year. These convenings serve to ground the collective work of Network. They provide an opportunity for Network participants to continue to learn about one another, deepen their ability to work together across difference, and explore opportunities to collaborate. As the Network has developed, and people have begun to collaborate and partner around ideas for addressing economic mobility, these convenings have also become an opportunity to check-in and hear about existing collaborations.  

In between these convenings, Network participants come together for different kinds of activities, some initiated and propelled by the participants themselves, and others provided by the Foundation. These activities between convenings (which we call ABC’s), are a reflection of the needs and interests articulated by Network participants. They represent an ongoing feedback and response loop that allows for continual trust-building and forward movement of collective action. 

As the Network continues into its second full year, the outcomes of our exploration continue to be emergent. We continue to learn about how Networks are built and sustained, about how trust is established and deepened, and about all of the myriad ways a group of deeply committed, humble and motivated systems-leaders can work together to impact our City. We will keep you apprised as our learning process evolves.