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Do You Know a Connector When You See One?

By Mary Beth Powell on June 18th, 2014

"There are exceptional people out there who are capable of starting epidemics. All you have to do is find them." – Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

Twice each year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gathers senior managers from organizations it funds who are working to reduce childhood obesity. During these two-day “Leaders Advances,” we share our work and strategize how we can have a greater impact through our collective efforts. After meeting for five years, this tight-knit group of researchers, practitioners and advocates has truly become a family. Each meeting strengthens our professional bonds and personal connections.

One of my favorite colleagues at these meetings is Darrin Anderson, deputy director of the New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids. At 6‘7” and with a booming voice, you can’t miss Darrin. But it is more than his physical presence that draws people to him. Darrin is light-hearted and funny, and extremely committed to his work. What he and his co-workers are accomplishing to eliminate health disparities and promote healthier communities captivates me. Although I am sure he is part of a highly skilled team, much of this success is surely due to his strong leadership skills, ability to motivate people and strong network.

In the interview for this blog post, I asked him the secrets to his success. Darrin replied, “Building authentic relationships is really what I strive to do in my work. I can talk with a neighborhood resident or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and find some way to speak their language and connect with them at their level.”

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell addresses why major changes in society can happen quickly and unexpectedly. He identifies three types of people: mavens, connectors and salespeople. Darrin is clearly a connector. I know because I’m one, too. We both love networking and talking to people, and we can “work a room” in a heartbeat. I’ve seen him during meals, at coffee breaks and even late in the evening, sharing a resource or experience, or simply welcoming a new colleague into our midst.

Gladwell notes that connectors know people in many different worlds and subcultures. Darrin knows people in his native state of Texas and on the east coast, where he moved to accept a basketball scholarship at the University of Delaware. He knows people in the clinical sciences (the focus of his undergraduate, masters and doctoral degrees) and in the nonprofit world when he worked for the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association.

At both associations, Darrin found himself immersed in public policy and advocacy work, where relationship building is a critical skill. “My job was to build corporate and community alliances. I had to fundraise, open an office, recruit and hire staff and do a little bit of everything, but I also had to develop trust and build great relationships to be effective in my nonprofit work.”

When I asked Darrin whether he felt his work in New Jersey has made a difference, he said the results speak for themselves in the nearly 40 communities in which they have worked. “These communities have new playgrounds and corner stores that now carry fresh produce. Local schools and churches now keep their facilities open for community use because of the joint-use agreements we helped them put in place.”

He continued. “We bring new people around the table to address tough social issues like crime and mental health to determine how to produce healthy outcomes in their communities. I may not be able to solve their problems, but I can connect them to the right people who can.”

As a fellow connector, I’m sure Darrin has a mental rolodex in his head that he uses to link people together. Gladwell says connectors are “people with a special gift for bringing the world together.”

I’m grateful for the connectors I know, like Darrin, who have introduced me to others and to new concepts. I also find joy in doing the same for others. Connectors are critical to social change. If you’re a connector, keep bringing people together. It’s a valuable gift to the world. If you’re not a connector, simply find one. Or don’t worry, we’ll find you!

Mary Beth Powell

Environmental advocate, and die-hard Carolina basketball fan. Former Senior Project Officer at Healthy Places by Design (then Active Living By Design).