This guest post was written by Karl LaPan, Director – UF Innovate|Accelerate, for the Ecosystem Building Leadership Project.

Successful ecosystem builders possess essential traits that contribute to their effectiveness in their role and how they relate to their stakeholders. As Tiffany Henry shared in her recent blog about the importance and relevance of these traits, she noted that effective builders rely on a complement of skills to advance their mission, sustain their programs, and enhance program quality, relationships and effectiveness. One of the fundamental traits required for success is being a “strategic connector” or “influencer“. What our EBLP project team meant by strategic connector/influencer is “the ability to analyze and understand the broader context and relationships within an ecosystem, and to use this understanding to identify opportunities and develop effective solutions.”

I have been an ecosystem builder for over two decades; however, when I started in the entrepreneurial support field, we lacked this specific terminology. Instead, we were type-casted more by the type of industry we worked in – incubator manager if we were in incubation, managing director, mentor or partner in seed accelerators, or community manager if we ran coworking sites. Our field has adapted since I started and has become more inclusive and collaborative, less defined by our industry type and more inspired by the nature of the work we do and the connections we build.

A primary outcome of fostering connections and exerting influence in a dynamic ecosystem is the ability to connect dots, see around corners, and find common ground. When I was at the NIIC, one of the programs we launched with incredible generosity from a local foundation, was focused on flipping poverty with prosperity. Through design thinking, we re-framed a problem into an opportunity.  We assembled a group of trusted connectors (“uncommon support organizations”) doing job placement and workforce development, including our local library, a disability organization, a second chance for employment group, and an organization serving refugee and immigrant families and individuals. Had we framed the problem in traditional entrepreneurial delivery terms, we would have missed the opportunity to serve people who never would have walked through our door at the NIIC. In a more collaborative environment, under-represented and disadvantaged individuals can have a chance to thrive rather than be held back by persistent barriers and negative stereotypes. More importantly, entrepreneurially-centric programming can be built for them, and they can see themselves actively engaged and participating in it – building community and stronger interdependence.

What I lean on most, when honing my strategic connector skills, is a “generative thinking” approach to opportunity spotting. By taking a wide-angle lens toward solving problems, unique solutions and possibilities can be found. Sometimes we have to unlearn and relearn, and only through intellectual curiosity and lifelong learning can we find new patterns and meaning that move the needle or challenge the status quo. One of my favorite books, Setting the Table, by Danny Myers, posits the profound and liberating question – “who wrote the rule that….” And so, by asking the same thing in an entrepreneurial context, we can have many degrees of freedom in exploring creative options and finding new ways to unlock extraordinary value.

One of the best books on how to see new things, identify your value innovation, and expanding boundaries is Blue Ocean Strategy.