Not long before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama, a young Vernon Jordan interviewed for a sales internship at the Continental Insurance Company. The recruiter made Jordan, a sophomore at DePauw University, an offer. He was told to report to his new job in the firm's Atlanta office at the beginning of the summer. When he showed up-dressed in his best suit-and announced to the receptionist that he was ready to start his summer internship, there was a problem. The receptionist made a quick telephone call to the person in charge of interns, and asked him to step in.
Here's how Jordan describes what happened next:The supervisor, a tall fellow who looked to be in his midthirties, came out. I introduced myself. "I'm Vernon Jordan. I was hired to be a summer intern in your office."His reaction was not unlike the receptionist's. But he quickly composed himself and took me inside his office. An awkward moment passed before he said, "They didn't tell us.""They didn't tell you what?" I asked, even though I suspected where he was heading."They didn't tell us you were colored," he replied. At that time we had not yet become "black." "You know," he went on, "you can't work here. It's just impossible. You just can't."
And he didn't. Jobless, Jordan was determined to find a summer position despite the fast-disappearing prospects as his college break wore on. Finally he landed a job as a chauffeur to a former mayor of Atlanta, Robert Maddox, who was in his eighties.
Jordan's own eightieth birthday party was on Martha's Vineyard, an island dotted with gingerbread cottages that has long been favored by aristocrats. During the party, Bill and Hillary Clinton boogied to soul music. President Barack Obama, the actor Morgan Freeman, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., and American Express CEO Ken Chenault all showed up to fete the renowned civil rights leader and power broker.
Over the ensuing decades, Vernon Jordan had become a close confidant to presidents and was christened the First Friend by The New York Times. He had also built an enviable network of contacts in the business world-sitting on nine corporate boards including Dow Jones, Xerox, and Callaway Golf. As John Bryan, the former CEO of Sara Lee, said, "Vernon probably knows more corporate executives than anyone in America." To jaded detractors, Jordan is emblematic of the problems created by the coziness of Wall Street and the White House. His rebuttal is that it is "not a crime to be close to Wall Street . . . If you are a politician, you have to have relationships with every kind of entity."
Jordan lies at the center of the inner circle
, a name given by Wharton professor Michael Useem to describe the connections between corporations created by the business elite. The shortest route between any two companies on the S&P 500 was Vernon Jordan. According to Johan Chu, at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, "This network remained highly connected throughout the twentieth century, serving as a mechanism for the rapid diffusion of information and practices and promoting elite cohesion."
Jordan represents both the power and the perceived problems of networks. His unparalleled ability to network allowed the grandson of a sharecropper to become "one of the most connected men in America." Jordan was the civil rights movement's ambassador to boardrooms. Henry Louis Gates predicted that "historians will remember Vernon Jordan as the Rosa Parks of Wall Street." But many find the backroom handshakes that his career has been built on morally dubious.
How exactly did Vernon Jordan land at the epicenter of the professional and political elite? He gives a hint in a 2012 commencement address in which he quotes Melville:We cannot live for ourselves aloneOur lives are connected by a thousand invisible threadsAnd along these sympathetic fibersOur actions run as causes and return to us as results.
To understand Vernon Jordan's transformation, we need to be able to trace the thousands of invisible threads he spun together.Invisible Threads
The Melville quote is more than an inspiration, it's a new lens that we can apply to the idea of networks. The structure of someone's network is a map that tells what their life has been like up to this point and where they are going. As a network analyst, sociologist, and professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, I've spent the last fifteen years studying how people's social networks evolve, what they look like, and what that means for their ability to succeed in the workplace, be happy and healthy, and find personal fulfillment. Vernon Jordan has a rare and special kind of network. To grasp its features, we have to first understand some more common building blocks.
The lowest common denominator of social connection is a dyad-the one-on-one relationships we form with a single individual. Over time, these relationships naturally organize themselves into networks. We've all heard that term, but what are networks, really? Networks are groups of interconnected people, some overlapping one another and others that have no members in common. Through networks, it is possible to leverage our relationships to manifest something much stronger than a bunch of dyads-an outcome where 1 + 1 really does equal 3. Renowned sociologist James S. Coleman explained that social capital makes "possible the achievement of certain ends that would not be attainable in its absence."
There is what's possible, and then there is what's plausible. Three simple topographies characterize most people's networks.
In the network maps of expansionists, brokers, and conveners, each circle represents a person. The network belongs to the person represented by the dark circle in the middle, and the lines denote relationships between them and their friends, as well as the connections between their friends. You may not immediately realize it, but in all of these pictures, there are the same number of people. What you will recognize is the amount of energy, the effort, that goes into forming and maintaining these ties varies. Brokers are directly tied to only seven people but have indirect access to twelve different viewpoints, experiences, and information sources. Because conveners' friends are more likely than brokers' friends to be friends with one another, conveners maintain nine relationships to get the same information.
My colleague Nicholas Christakis frequently invokes a metaphor to illustrate how different network structures give rise to different properties. Both graphite and diamonds are made out of the exact same thing: carbon. Graphite is soft, dark, and so commonplace that we are likely to find it in the backpack of a six-year-old. Diamonds, on the other hand, are hard, clear, and rare, and are arguably one of the most expensive status signals on the planet.
What distinguishes graphite from diamonds is the manner in which the carbon atoms are arranged. In graphite, the carbon atoms are arranged in sheets. In diamonds, they are arranged tetrahedrally. These different structural arrangements give rise to different properties.
In much the same way as with carbon, the same set of social relationships-composed of the same people, but in different configurations-give rise to vastly different ends. Imagine two teams composed of the same people. In one example, everyone works together and collaborates with everyone else. In the other instance, the people remain the same but the team usually works in specialized sub-teams with a liaison going between them. Despite having the same members, the teams would have radically different strengths. The same is true with personal networks.
In a network context, expansionists, brokers, and conveners each have distinct social and professional benefits and drawbacks.Expansionists
have extraordinarily large networks, are well-known, and have an uncanny ability to work a room. However, they often have trouble maintaining social ties and leveraging them to create value for themselves or others.Brokers
generate value by bringing together typically disconnected parties from different social worlds. Their networks have huge information benefits and are highly innovative, since the majority of new ideas come from recombination.Conveners
build dense networks in which their friends are also friends. This type of network has outsize trust and reputational benefits.
So which type is Vernon Jordan? In fact, he strikes an exemplary balance between the deep trust of convening, creating information benefits for everyone in his network through brokerage, while maintaining a mind-boggling number of contacts.
Yet in an interview with Jordan for the National Portrait Gallery, former director Marc Pachter highlighted a seeming contradiction: "You describe yourself on occasion, and have written it as well, that you are a loner . . . You are somebody very much engaged in the world, you have many friends, you have social connections, you understand friendship, you understand all of this. That's been the core of your being, and yet you are a loner."
To which Jordan responded, "Well, most things in life you gotta figure out for yourself. And there is a small group of friends with whom you can share. And that is based on trust and confidence and friendship. I have never been one to bare my soul. And so I think loner maybe taking it too far. I just respect your privacy and I harbor my own."
As much as Jordan has gained through convening and trust, his ascent can be traced to the key role he has played brokering between the worlds of business and politics, as well as across racial lines. Vernon described his brokering role, stating: "When you're on the outside and as connected as I am, there's an opportunity to interpret."
Like Vernon Jordan, the characteristics and structure of our own network are partially determined by the context in which we live our day-to-day life-what type of job we have; if our office is located next to the elevator; if our house is at the end of a cul-de-sac; whether or not we go to church, join clubs, or volunteer for the PTA; and much more. The choices we make-such as whether or not to have children, whether or not to change industries, whether or not to attend the Friday meeting-all have a strong effect on our network.
We also enact and reenact our network on a second-by-second basis. Using wearable sensors that track individuals' social interactions, Ingrid Nembhard and I discovered that the amount of time you spend listening in a conversation, how frequently you interrupt, and how much your voice changes in a conversation are all strongly associated with what type of network you have. Conveners are great listeners. Expansionists tend to be louder and to talk more frequently than their peers, and are less likely to interrupt.
Given their behavior, expansionists would seem to be more likely to be extroverts. Surprisingly, according to a meta-analysis of 138 studies examining the personality and networks of thousands of individuals, extroversion has very little effect on what someone's network looks like.
Of personality characteristics, something psychologists call self-monitoring, which is chameleonlike behavior, has been found in study after study to be the strongest predictor of what style of network you are likely to develop. Brokers tend to be chameleons. They easily adapt to new social situations. They intuitively know when it's time to keep quiet to match the formality of a meeting or laugh a little louder.
Social scientists have spent the last four decades studying the antecedents and consequences of social network structure. How your network is shaped (consciously or unconsciously) has enormous implications for a wide variety of personal and professional outcomes. The strength and quality of your social connections and their arrangement profoundly affect your experience of the world, your emotions, and your personal and professional success.
This book is primarily about networks: how the basic elements of social structure and the psychological tendencies that accompany them shape our lives.
Copyright © 2020 by Marissa King. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.