Created in partnership with the Presidio Institute.
NationSwell founder and CEO Greg Behrman sat down with David Smith, managing director of the Presidio Institute, to discuss the role of networks in social impact work. They riffed on what it’s like to create a high-functioning communities for leaders and innovators, the challenges to working with a busy community and how Harry Potter fits in.
NationSwell: Hi Greg and Dave. We’re excited to pick your brains, so let’s get to it. Have you always worked in purpose-driven positions or did you make a career pivot?
DB: My career has spanned multiple sectors, but I’ve always been purpose driven. My sense of personal responsibility came into focus when I was studying at University of California, Berkeley. I failed a midterm that was given the morning after the 2000 election. I asked the professor why he scheduled an exam at a time that would limit his students from being actively engaged in the election. He said, “If you want to be involved in that stuff, you should choose another major.” To me, this violated what U.C. Berkeley and the U.S. stands for. Community engagement isn’t something to be left to a professional class of leaders. It’s an opportunity and responsibility for all people — regardless of career choice, age, race, gender, economic class or even citizenship status. From that point forward, I’ve focused my efforts to work with nonprofits, and in business and government to help people to improve their communities and solve challenges by leveraging diversity as an asset.
GB: My path was a little different. After college, I worked on Wall Street. I learned a lot and valued that experience. I figured that would be my career, and I would get to work on policy and social impact later in life. Then I studied international relations at Oxford in England during graduate school. By the time I finished the program, it became clear to me that those were the issues I was most passionate about, which led to me shifting gears earlier than expected. Instead of going back to finance, I became a writer, worked in government at the State Department and served in the military before founding NationSwell.
NationSwell: Can you tell us what “Connecting the Connectors” means to you? How are you defining “networks” here?
GB: For us at NationSwell, everything relates to our mission: We elevate the innovators who are renewing America and accelerate their work. The NationSwell Council was created to connect and support an amazing group of innovators, problem solvers and leaders by providing them with exposure, insights and connections to help with their work, their life and service. We use the word “community” rather than “network.” When I think about “community,” I envision a group of people who are connected through a common set of values, animating spirit or mission. That’s what we see — and aim to cultivate — at NationSwell.
DB: I want to double down on Greg’s comment about “accelerating their work.” At Presidio, we’re able to unleash the power of innovation created when mission-aligned leaders are connected and given the permission and mandate to change the world together.
NationSwell: So how is tapping your Rolodex in the purpose and service sectors different than doing it for, say, getting a job in the corporate sector?
DB: Opening a Rolodex implies a simple introduction or sharing contact information. My approach focuses on being a proxy of trust and enabling new relationships to form and, hopefully, blossom. It’s similar to getting a job in the corporate sector. The goal is to show added value to both sides, but that value has to extend beyond talent and salary. It requires a deeper knowledge of your network because your introduction has to create trust and show alignment of motivations and values.
GB: I couldn’t have said it any better, Dave! I don’t view connecting as consulting a Rolodex; I view it as identifying complementarity that can lead to mutual benefit, impact and, ideally, better lives for others.
NationSwell: The digital age has transformed how we connect with people. Has the role of networks similarly changed?
GB: It’s true, so much is different. But some of the hallmarks of our time — the rapid pace of change, our digital orientation and our relationships with our smartphones, for example — actually can bring us back to some of the basics and accentuate a deep need for human connection and community.
DB: Greg is spot on about the “need for human connection and community” — now more than ever. We define leadership as “change at the pace of trust.” These days, with the reduction of authentic relationships and community, trust is becoming more and more elusive. Technology provides great potential for sharing and scaling, but positive and sustainable change can only be fostered by people who have trusting relationships around a shared set of values.
NationSwell: You both know amazing people and have extensive networks and communities. Do you have any advice for someone is more junior, with a less developed network? How can they contribute?
DB: Relationships are a muscle that must be exercised to be maintained and to grow. The more you engage your network, ask for things, offer support and connect others, the more value you bring and take away. An easy way of doing this is to remember (or make notes) of what really matters to people in your network. When you come upon an interesting article, start-up, or conference, share it with those who would find it valuable. Of course, use discretion and don’t overwhelm your network; similar to trying to do too much in the gym, you might cause more harm than good. I’d also say that one of the best actions you can take is to express gratitude. Write thank you notes, send appreciation gifts and let the people who take the time to support you know that you are grateful.
GB: Great answer, Dave. I try to approach relationships with three things in mind. The first is authenticity and integrity. I think Richard Branson once said, “If you don’t mean it, don’t say it.” I think that’s important. Another: I once heard a friend, a Council member actually, say, “We’re the people who always follow through.” That’s super important. So many agree to do something, but don’t follow through. Even if it takes awhile, I try very hard to always follow through. Finally, in any relationship, I want the other person — whether it’s a friend, Council member or business partner — to get more out of it than I do. I’m not keeping a ledger; it’s just a guiding principle. Part of that may be personal: I’d feel guilty if someone has gone out of their way to help or support me, and I hadn’t done something to support them. The idea of being in service to other people just feels satisfying and provides meaning.
NationSwell: Now, a fun one. In J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, characters summon their Patronus and use them for good — like a superpower. What would your Patronus be?
GB: For me — and NationSwell’s mission — I’d go with the Cape Buffalo. They’re protective and determined. When there is a difficult or murky decision or a big challenge, I come back to our mission. It’s helped to steer us in the right direction.
DB: This is a tough one. I guess I would go with a dog, a cross between a shepherd and a service breed. We recently lost our black lab, Zin, who was constantly in service to our family. At times, he stepped up as the protector. In other instances, he herded our children and kept them out of trouble. He was the source of joy and fun, but also comfort when he sensed emotional strife. He was a constant, positive presence fulfilling the needs our family didn’t even know we had — demonstrating stability, offering silent guidance and being a testimony of unconditional love.
NationSwell: Nice work. You’d both definitely be Gryffindors.