In this episode, Naava Frank and Ziva Mann, authors of the article “How to Reduce Stress and Increase Learning: The Power of Professional Networks,” join Jessica and Bob to discuss how our network connections can help support us in difficult times. Naava is the director of Knowledge Communities where she consults to foundations and nonprofits to launch and support the growth of networks and communities of practice. Ziva is the Director of Assessment and Development at Ascent Leadership Networks, where she assesses leaders and helps them and their organizations develop in the ways that matter most. In this episode, they talk about why they wrote the article, share stories of how networks have helped people support each other, and provide their unique insights into connection, community, learning, and more.
Special thanks to Nathan Grimm, who composed all of the music for the podcast; Kalin Goble, who recorded the episode introduction; Jen Chilek, for her help with our podcast website; and Hannah Hyde and Terry Meisenbach for all their help with marketing.
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Network Mapping Exercise
Listen as Ziva Mann leads Jessica and you through a quick network mapping exercise that can help you see your support networks and assess where they could be improved.
Kalin Goble: Welcome to Practicing Connection in a Complex World, a podcast exploring the personal stories and collective practices that empower us to work together to help each other, our families, and our communities improve our resilience and readiness in a rapidly changing world. To start our conversation here are Jessica Beckendorf and Bob Bertsch.
Bob Bertsch: Hi, and thanks so much for letting us share this episode with you. What you’re about to hear was co-created with Naava Frank and Ziva Mann. Naava is the director of Knowledge Communities where she consults to foundations and nonprofits to launch and support the growth of networks and communities of practice that maximize their strategic impact. Ziva is the Director of Assessment and Development at Ascent Leadership Networks, where she assesses leaders and helps them and their organizations develop in the ways that matter most. Ziva spent over a decade working on co-creating change and building solutions with the people most affected by an issue, with a focus on vulnerable populations and inequity.
Jessica and I invited Naava and Ziva to collaborate after reading an article they wrote on how networks can help reduce stress, which was a topic that we had planned for our season two of the podcast so it was really serendipitous to run across that article, Jess.
Jessica Beckendorf: Yes, Bob. That article was pretty much a perfect match to the topic we had chosen so it was really evident that we had to reach out to them and invite them to talk with us. We read this article on networkweaver.com and originally it was published in eJewish Philanthropy. They had worked a lot on this article and when I saw that it’d been in more than one place and when I did a little bit of digging on Naava and Ziva, I was a little anxious about reaching out to them. They were the first collaborators that we had reached out to that we didn’t have any connection to whatsoever. In all of our other collaborations in the past, we’d either had some sort of a weak tie or even a stronger tie to the person we’d invited in to collaborate with us or to the people we invited in.
We didn’t have any connection to them whatsoever. I was just reaching out and saying, “Hey, we really liked your article. Would you mind spending a whole bunch of time with us?” [laughs] When they agreed, I was thrilled really because I really do respect that people are busy. When they agreed, I was really thrilled and we ended up getting together. We had a rich, lovely conversation, but at the end a technical difficulty caused me to lose the recording. I was really bummed. I was really disappointed. I had all kinds of negative thoughts about it and about that failure but two great things came out of it. We got to have another conversation with Ziva and Naava, they were gracious enough to give us more of their time, and it led to a podcast episode that we hadn’t planned for our season, which ended up becoming episode one of season two, is called Celebrating (or at least dealing with) Failure.
Bob: It was great to have those two things come out of that and I think, referring to what we’re about to hear the second conversation, I think the fact that we went through that failure together really helped strengthen our relationships, kind of tested the water some more with having to share that failure. If you listen to Celebrating (or at least dealing with) Failure, that episode of the podcast you’ll hear that whole story, but it really provided a better foundation for this episode too, I think, and for, hopefully, what will be future collaborations with Naava and Ziva. In fact, we had such a great conversation that we generated more content than we could fit into this episode so I want to encourage you to please go out and visit our show notes. You’ll find practices to build your network, links to more resources, and much, much more and you can find those show notes at oneop.org/series/practicingconnection, or just go to oneop.org and search practicing connection. Here it is our collaboration with Naava Frank and Ziva Mann, we hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
Jessica: Welcome, Naava and Ziva. I’m so excited to have you here today.
Naava Frank: We’re really excited to be with you. We’ve been looking forward for this opportunity and we always have such a great time talking, thank you.
Ziva Mann: Yes, thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Jessica: Well, wonderful. One of the things that I was excited about is how your story unfolded. It was a time of stress that led to your connection, which ended up leading to the article that Bob and I found and read, which led to us being here today. Naava, could you tell us a little more about what was happening at that time and how you two came to connect?
Naava: Sure. I love the way you framed it, such a great story of the way connections move people. Most of us have a story about someone who we knew a little bit in our lives, and then later that person became really important and that’s the story of me and Ziva. We knew each other, we traveled in similar social circles, our kids went to the same school for a while, but we weren’t that close. Then, in the summer of 2019, we were both invited to a friend’s event and it was a 45-minute walk and we decided to take it together. As we walked, all of a sudden, we discovered like all these commonalities we had no idea were there. After that event, we said we got to keep in touch and we set up a short time to talk every couple of weeks whenever we could.
When COVID started, I was seeing people struggling to cope with all the changes that they had to implement in particular leaders in nonprofits and I knew that Ziva was an expert in leadership. I saw people turning to networks for help. They needed to learn how to work with a remote team and all kinds of things that had to do with the beginning of COVID and it seemed like there were missed opportunities for networks at that point in time. Because I had a sense of who Ziva was and what she was capable of, when we next spoke I said to her, “We should put our heads together let’s write something. Networks are mattering more than ever and as people adapt and will need to continue to adapt, I’d love to do this with you. What do you think?”
Jessica: Yes. I love the title How to Reduce Stress and Increase Learning: The Power of Professional Networks During COVID, that was the article that we ran across on the NetworkWeaver site. The title makes so much sense. You were thinking about the stress from COVID and the things you had been hearing, and you and Ziva had been connecting and talking on a regular basis and you guys had initially connected because of some stress. Ziva, tell us a little bit more about the rest of the story. Take us from there.
Ziva: Sure. Naava is our resident expert on networks. We were looking at this from a very different angle. When she reached out, I had just been discussing a blog post that the President of Ascent, that’s the company I work with, had written about managing negative emotions in the workplace due to the pandemic. Things like stress, anxiety, isolation. One of the things that we found striking was the impact that stress has on learning. At Ascent, we specialize in assessment and development and we know some amount of stress is good. You need something to push you to learn a new skill, a new way of doing things, but the pandemic, everything that’s been happening in the past year, it’s just way too much. Too much stress means your cortisol levels, that’s a stress hormone that we produce, the cortisol levels rise and that actually inhibits the brain’s ability to build dendrites, new pathways, which means it inhibits your ability to learn.
Then, of course, everything got worse over the past year. There was a recent report from the CDC that said that 40.9% of adults are reporting struggling with anxiety, depression, suicidality, substance abuse. That’s almost half of us. Which you can see how we got there, but it’s terrible for our capacity to learn how to do things differently. Over the past year, a lot of us had to learn how to work remotely, but then as the year went on, things that we know how to do in the office or we know how to do in our usual settings, we’ve had to reinvent them, it’s adapt them to make it work in COVID world. It’s like we have to be resilient but over and over again. We never reached out.
I was looking at this problem from a different angle and I got really excited. I said to her, “Oh, yes, we should absolutely work on this.” Because now I can see the connection, one of the things that makes networks so crucial is it gives people a space to share their challenges in order to feel validated, to feel connected to the people who listened and supported. Essentially, networks have the capacity to unlock our ability to learn, our ability to be resilient and so we jumped in.
Jessica: It’s so interesting, Ziva, because it makes me wonder if we can’t learn, if new neural pathways are more difficult to under stress, if we can’t learn, then it’s also harder to adapt. Adaptation, we need to be able to adapt in something like a pandemic.
Ziva: I think that’s absolutely right. When we’re under stress, we tend to revert to old habits. These might not be the best choices for us if circumstances have changed around us. It pushes us back to essentially our comfort zones which may be exactly the wrong place for us to be in that given moment.
Jessica: When we’re under stress, it can be super helpful then to reach out to people in our network because they can help challenge us to keep adapting and learning even when we don’t want to.
Jessica: Central to the work that Bob and I do is the idea of networks and connecting through your network, but I’m not sure that we’ve ever explicitly talked about what a network is. Naava, I would love to hear your thoughts on what is a network?
Naava: Sure. It’s interesting cause the term is used in so many ways these days. I’m going to put my definition out. [laughs] I think of a network as a group of people that are connected to each other in some fashion that produces value for their members. By interacting, they increase the value. That’s the way I like to think of it. I also want to say there’s lots of networks. Even there are groups of people who share hobbies. There are network. There are business networks which is more traditionally what we know about people who share business leads. There are professional networks, whether it’s nurses or whether it’s teachers. All of those I see is networks of people who interact to produce value.
I continue to see the tremendous impact that making simple connections can have in people’s lives. One of the things I like doing is asking people about powerful connections that they’ve made. People tell me the most amazing stories. Like they met their future life partner because of a connection. Somebody connected them to their current job. They hired their best employee. Networks can be really powerful.
Networks can be large. They can be small. They can be really close-knit. They can be really distant. They can be really diverse. They can be homogeneous. They function in lots of different ways. As a network geek, I get a real kick out of thinking about the different network structures. Some networks are structured to create benefits. Like close-knit homogeneous networks provide emotional support and enable collaboration. Then the opposite is that diverse networks bring in new opportunities and spread innovation. The structure of a network varies in terms of what it can produce.
Jessica: When I think of networks, that doesn’t have to start with a network that’s already in place, it starts with one person or it can start with one person. One person that cares about an issue and starts seeking other people who also want to create change within that issue. They connect with others. Then those others are like, “Yes,” they get fired up about it, or they at least are mildly interested in. [laughs] They want to continue to connect and talk about it and learn together and grow together. Then the connections grow from there. Pretty soon, you’ve got a group of people. It can be a small group of people. It can be a handful of people that are interested in making a change in their city or town. Here, we’ve got the handful of people now that are forging ahead with some change.
Ziva: Some time ago, I’ve been connected to Tabitha, and she’s a military mom who has two boys who are very different kinds of learners. They’re actually really rare. There’s only about 0.1% of the population who are wired like these kids. They’re wonderful. They’re challenging as children so often are. In particular, because teachers, for example, are not trained to handle kids like this in the classroom. Parents find the usual approaches to parenting don’t work. Tabitha has these two beautiful boys. She’s trying to figure out what to do with them.
What she actually did is she started an online community. She built a network of families so that they could meet each other, they could share experiences what works. I asked her about it. She said that she started her network because– I’m going to read her words here. “I was feeling very alone as a parent. I needed to find others like us both for community but also for comfort. We wanted our kids to be part of something even if distanced.” What she did was she made a couple of strategic decisions. First of all, she– they’re military family. They get posted all over the place.
She didn’t want to be connected to any particular nationality or organization. That meant that she had– her network was able to reach a lot farther. It wasn’t geographically bounded. That meant that they also had more families of these rare kids who could share ideas and raise questions. She also thought very carefully about her target group. She made decisions based on that about how she was going to facilitate the network. Essentially, she thought about who was involved, what did they need, where were they, and how she was going to connect with them.
She said, “I wanted to keep it a safe space that is non-intrusive.” Not too much demand on young families. Again, because she is the mom of young kids, she also knew she couldn’t do it alone. She found another parent who could share the work of moderating the group with her. It grew like crazy. Currently, there’s about 1000 members across the world. Energetic people are posting on a regular basis. They’re asking questions. They’re sharing stories. This is like a space where people will understand the milestones that they’re celebrating cause they’re very specific to this group.
She said that one of the benefits that she sees is that the children are often too young for a lot of things. They still need support and connection. The parents especially, she said, need to know they’re not alone. There are others who have not just survived but thrived with these unique circumstances. I just love that.
Jessica: Let’s talk a little bit about how networks can support our resilience. Ziva, I’d love to hear your perspective on this. The story that you shared about connecting with Naava is one personal example. The story you just shared about Tabitha is another great example. How do connections like that help us be more resilient?
Ziva: We talked earlier about how meeting with others who are facing similar challenges can lift an emotional burden. Isolation and stress unlock our capacity to learn. Capacity to learn, for better or for worse, is actually only one part of the challenge. You still need to find solutions, strategies, maybe people who can help you tackle whatever it is you’re facing, and then you have to use it, you have to take action. When it comes to finding solutions and strategies, my preference has always been to take an approach of maybe somebody has already solved this. Maybe there’s a wheel that’s already been invented and I just have to find it. Finding that answer has a lot to do with how effective your network is for the purpose. That depends on relationships.
I’m just thinking because networks can be very big and complex, and as Naava mentioned, there’s a lot of different ways to structure and design a network. Why don’t we start with an example of something smaller, and a little bit more familiar to a lot of us, which is teams? A professor at NYU, once studied a group of improvement teams that I was working with and observed that the teams were more effective when they carved out time for the fluffy stuff at every meeting like getting to know each other, just starting the meeting by going around the table and say, “Hey, how’s everybody doing?”
For a team, especially one with tight on time, it was really exciting to see this spending time on relationship building, what had a connection to productivity, those teams got more done, more ideas flowed. When disagreements happened, they were more likely to be constructive rather than destructive or derailing. It’s actually similar for a network. The relationships between the members of the network, have a direct impact on the network’s effectiveness in helping the members learn and take action.
Naava: I love what you’re saying, Ziva. It just reminds me that one of the founders of the fields of network, her name is Julian Holly, she has a lot of detail about what she calls network weaving, which is very intentionally introducing people to each other, connecting them, and building relationship.
Ziva: To give you an idea of how this could work, let’s say I have a network that’s designed to be a source of information and resources for the people in it. I could bring in an expert to share ideas and strategies with the network members. The expert’s knowledge flows into the network, which receives it. In this example, the members of the network are essentially passive recipients of ideas. Let’s say I want my network to be different. I want it to be a network that’s enabling people– has more of a focus on not just learning but moving to action. Sharing the experiences of what’s working and what isn’t working.
In that situation, I could bring in the expert, people will receive knowledge, ideas, strategy, whatever it is. Then the folks in the network could be invited to share, tell us what you tried from what you heard before, tell us what’s working, what didn’t work. In this scenario, essentially, people are more actively involved, and they’re energizing each other with their own engagement. What you end up with is a network that is this live, active web of activity, with information and ideas and questions and support all flowing to and from different members.
Jessica: A living, breathing, adaptive thing. Yes, that’s great.
Ziva: Great, which it makes them more responsive and more resilient. Then that’s where you get the resilience coming in because when you’re able to respond to people, you’re able to give them what they need. I should say, at this point in time, something I see in my work a lot is we use cohort programs for leadership development which means you’ve got a group of peers who are listening to experts and then we’ve got peer support and action plans to help people move to action. We bring in these amazing, brilliant faculty and we ask them to teach practical hands-on life-changing things.
We know that in-person trainings lead to roughly 25% of participants having some degree of behavior change. People learn, but they don’t use it, but it’s not what we’re aiming for. What we do is we essentially construct a network of peers helping peers within this cohort. They’re helping each other figure out how they’re going to tackle a problem or they’re holding each other accountable. In other words, you told me you want to do this, I am here to support you, and it makes people feel more verged to move to action.
In our last cohort, we actually saw 100% of participants make progress on these long or midterm goals that we asked them to set for themselves, which is just jaw-dropping. In only seven months, we actually even saw 20% of them set themselves new goals, reach farther stretch farther. Peer-to-peer relationships are really just that powerful. They’ll help people move from considering something to actually acting on it, to trying that new skill, to moving outside of their comfort zone. It’s extraordinary.
Jessica: That’s so interesting because I see the same thing in a community context. This reminds me of some asset-based community development approaches, in particular, this small group initiative out of Cincinnati, Ohio, that really focuses on a small group of peers, a small group of people in the neighborhood. One of the quotes that I love from them is, “More money and better leadership do not give us the community we desire. The next step forward comes from engaged citizens.” It really illustrates what you were saying and they continue to make goals.
People who come together and connect about things they care about, will continue to be engaged. Maybe sometimes they’ll be engaged with this group a little more than the group that they started with. Maybe they don’t come back to the original group, because they’ve moved on to other things they care about, but no matter what, if you’re getting together with people, things are going to start happening.
Ziva: You could say it’s the power of stakeholder engagement. You could say it’s the power of peer-to-peer connection. I just think it unlocks possibilities that weren’t there before.
Naava: I love the stories that you guys are sharing and it really triggers for me, some stories of networks I work with, that have really had a positive impact. One of the things that I do is I am a consultant to a nonprofit called Purpose Built Communities. I help them convene a network of local leaders across the country who are focused on holistic neighborhood revitalization initiatives that create healthy neighborhoods that include broad, deep, and permanent pathways to prosperity for low-income families. It’s a really powerful place-based initiative.
One of the things that we saw is that how these leaders share because they’ve built a trusting relationship over time, budget, advice, resources that help each other. One really powerful example is one leader won a grant for his neighborhood to do a major COVID stay covered mass campaign. He developed this beautiful campaign and he shared it with all the other leaders. Now 27 cities, have a campaign ready to go.
Jessica: That’s a big impact. Naava, thank you for sharing that.
Ziva: Naava, another one that I love is the example you were telling me the other day about the gym teachers?
Naava: Oh, yes. I think as we started during this time of COVID, both as it first hit, now as in the midst of it, and now as we begin to transition out and think about hybrid meetings and meeting again, in person, our networks can be so powerful. A network of independent schools decided to help gym teachers convene at the start of COVID, because they had to figure out how to run gym classes via zoom. You don’t even realize what the possibilities are and how working with peers can help us figure out how to do our jobs differently. We’re in this time of transition where things are always changing.
Once you have a trusted network, this is a group you can go back to. That’s what I think is so powerful about a network is, it’s being available over the long term and being flexible and adaptable so that you can deal with whatever is currently something that you wanted to achieve or something that you wanted, a challenge that you’re dealing with. The phrase that we talk about is Justin. Time Support. That’s what a network can provide.
Jessica: I think there’s also something else in what you’re describing, Naava. I listened to it and I think–
Naava: Absolutely right. Networks have pockets of untapped knowledge and experience in them. The other thing they do is, it’s almost like translating. Let’s say those PE teachers had experts who came in and they said, “Look, these are the three most important things you need to do. Here’s how you need to do them.” They still have to translate them to context-specific practices. What is going to work for me in my environment, given the resources, the constraints that I have available? One thing I think that peers do very well for each other is they help each other process and make that shift from expert-provided knowledge to internalized context-specific. Here’s how I’m going to do it and make it work .
As a result of COVID, I think people are appreciating what a network can be and I’m seeing more people who are beginning to invest in networks creating new ones. I’m part of a group of people who write grants and so a colleague of mine decided she wanted to start up a group of people who do this. I think she appreciated that if we make the investment, now we’ll be there for each other.
Jessica: What do you think gets in the way of people utilizing their networks?
Naava: It’s a great question. I think it’s part of human nature that part of a sweet, we don’t want to bother other people. I’ll just sit in the dark.
I also think that when we are having a challenge, when we’re stressed, our first instinct is usually to isolate ourselves. We think, Oh, nobody else is having this challenge. It’s just me and in doing that, we miss an opportunity for empathy, connection solutions. Just talking out a dilemma with a trusted friend or a colleague opens up new insights and possibilities because we all see the world through unique lenses. We each have our blind spots and so just talking to someone who brings a different perspective, allows you to see things from a new angle. Simple conversations can be magical and I think that’s one of the messages that we have about networks.
Another barrier that I see a lot is when we have expert networks, there’s the sense of like, I’m the expert. I have the answers. I can’t let on that. I don’t know. Professionals are very uncomfortable being vulnerable. If we can let go of that, it opens up so many possibilities for rich and deep learning and collaboration. I think the final point that I want to make is that not knowing who’s in your network and what other people might know because you haven’t taken the time to get to know them is also a barrier. Just like me and Ziva, just having coffee or virtual coffee with someone really makes a difference.
Ziva, I remember you talking about how somebody who was facilitating a network during COVID understood the need to help people get to know each other better.
Ziva: Oh yes. I love this, the story I actually got to watch it happen with my own eyes, which was fascinating. This is the New England Hemophilia Association. It’s a regional group that serves people and families living with bleeding disorders and they do a lot of providing education. Lots of expert speakers and a ton of community buildings so that people who have this rare condition or have a chance to connect to each other because that also supports them in learning new skills that they need in order to take care of their health.
When COVID started, they had just hired a brand new program director, Sarah Shenkman. Sarah was new to the area. She was new to all things, video conferencing and she had this calendar full of events, gatherings with different areas of focus, and things like that. None of it was going to work. She had to change everything that she was doing and so they went online and they would have their expert lectures, extra expert speakers online doing the presentations. What she did was she arranged to get feedback regularly from participants to find out how it was going. What did you get from this? Did you learn what you needed to learn? Is this something that’s valuable to you in your life? She realized that what they were doing wasn’t working.
She started experimenting. One of the experiments that she told me that was particularly successful were the zoom breakout rooms because it let people see each other see facial expressions. She said, “They had stronger connections,” was her phrase. The people, because they felt more connected to each other and I’m using her words here. It allowed people to be more vulnerable. They were just processing what they were learning. They were willing to be vulnerable and open and say, this is what I need. This is what I’m afraid of. This is what I hope for.
Actually one of the things that she saw happening is new families, new people started joining these online events. People who pre-COVID would not have actually attended in person. The reach as well as the impact of the network just shot upwards. It’s really wonderful to see that growth, particularly at a time with people so badly needed to support and I give Sarah a lot of credit for choosing to be that responsive to the needs of the community, to choosing, to give people a space. Well, as Naava would say, they could build the trust that they needed.
I think one of the lessons from Sarah is you don’t need gobs more time together. Sometimes it’s just saying, what is the most valuable thing that I can tweak. Of what’s already existing, what’s already present. It’s a lot easier than trying to invent more hours in the day, more emotional energy to do something.
Jessica: Thank you both again, so much for being here. We just love talking with you every chance we get. I can’t wait to see where your networks take you next.
Bob: Thanks so much for joining us for this co-created episode of practicing connection in the complex world. Thanks to Naava Frank and Ziva Mann for their generosity, their trust, their collaboration. It was so awesome. Thank you very much. We’d also like to thank our announcer. Caitlin Goebel had a Hyde and Terry Meisenbach who help us with promotion and Nathan grim for composing and performing all of the music you hear on the podcast.
Jessica: If you’d like to learn more about the practicing connection podcast, check out the show notes for this episode and a lot of other information about the podcast. You can find it on the military families learning network website at oneop.org, just click the podcast button and then practicing connection in a complex.
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This material is based upon work supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Office of Military Family Readiness Policy, U.S. Department of Defense under Award Number 2019-48770-30366.