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If you are ever in the audience when Erica Dhawan is presenting, she might make you dance. She’ll cue some traditional Indian “Bhangra” music, get you up on your feet, and show you a few moves – and next thing you know, you’ll be smiling and laughing with your neighbors – the walls between you having been swiftly knocked down.
Erica will have taught you, in just a few minutes, the essence of her theory about connection. Erica has built a career around connection – specifically, how it can be used in the workplace to unleash our creativity. The company she started, Cotential (that’s Connection + Potential) consults well-known companies around the world on the subject. She’s co-written a book, “Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence.” And she travels the globe giving keynotes and workshops on the power of connection.
Erica wasn’t always this clear about the concept of connection and didn’t always have the confidence she now has as she stands among the world’s preeminent minds at Thinkers50 and Davos. Both were the outcome of a personal journey that taught Erica important lessons and led her to her life’s work.
Her journey started in the suburbs of Pittsburgh as the middle child of Indian immigrants both physicians. She observed her extroverted father’s gregarious way of assimilating into American culture, and she had no trouble doing the same. She easily adopted her parents’ belief that success comes through discipline. “I worked hard. I was curious. I was confident,” she says.
The high-energy and expressiveness of Bollywood dancing played a major role in her life as it was a connection to her parents’ culture that she loved. These traits were a manifestation of an authentic version of Erica.
Erica tells the story of how by the second year of high school, her exuberance and confidence began to fade. At a stage of life when being different can be a liability, Erica’s light caramel skin tone and occasional Indian accent caused
her to be stigmatized. Gradually, Erica withdrew. She stopped raising her hand in class, and she put on weight. She became, as she puts it, “a voiceless voice among many.”
Then, at age 17, she attended Global Entrepreneurship — a program that brought together executives with young people interested in business. Erica had seen many women in the role of homemaker while growing up, but she was intrigued by the presence of successful business women. On the first day, a self-assured female executive pulled Erica out of a crowd and affirmed her with four words – “Erica, you look confident.” That moment sparked something in Erica. She met other execs who, she discovered, had similar life stories. “They had gotten locked in lockers, or they had dealt with a family divorce at home.”
She found that while she looked up to these individuals professionally, she could also identify with them as normal people on a human level. “I realized that sometimes we have to actively source new networks of people and perspectives to overcome our challenges. I really got hooked on that idea,” she explains. “It helped rebuild my curiosity and courage, and I learned for the first time that sometimes we lose it, but we can always get it back.”
The experience had a profound effect on Erica. It renewed her personal confidence. She also walked away with a new set of business role models that helped her imagine her potential in a new way.
This newfound confidence gave her the courage to exert her authentic self once again. She broke with her parents’ profession in medicine and chose instead to pursue a degree in economics. Of the decision, Erica says, “We all must move beyond our history.”
Armed with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from Wharton School of Business, Erica took a job on Wall Street – a choice she describes as somewhat at odds with the community-organization work she had come to embrace throughout her college experience. Initially enamored by the challenge, she began to notice that in chasing this particular version of success, she had begun to lose herself again.
“I began to feel like I didn’t belong there,” she explains, “and I started to cover myself. I hid my passion for Bollywood and Bhangra dancing. I hid the fact that I was doing work with a local nonprofit. In one way, I thrived in that environment because I could apply myself; I could do the work. But I was missing the emotional side of business – the connecting. The side where I wanted to see my work not only as a day-to-day job selling Lehman Brothers’ products but to feel like I had a purpose on the planet.”
It took two years, a fantastic stock market crash, and pushing herself into a personal crisis to spark Erica’s journey back to her true passion. Something crystallized for Erica when she wasn’t connected to people in a meaningful way, in a way that would fuel her confidence and curiosity, she would withdraw as she had done in high school. She now labels that “suppression” and insists that it’s part of the problem we need to take on individually and also address in the workplace today. “We need to move from a culture of suppression and fear to courage and creativity.” She insists that when we are able to create new and authentic connections, not only do our walls come down and our confidence gets buoyed, but we also open ourselves to finding the right people we need at a given time to help us solve a problem.
Erica left Wall Street and has not looked back. She went on to pursue advanced degrees at MIT’s Sloan School of Business and then Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) to define a new version of success that was truly her own.
While attending HKS as a researcher, she more deeply explored the intersection of confidence, curiosity, and connection. She now calls this “Connectional Intelligence” – the idea that if we can break down those workplace silos, where people work in isolation, and instead allow for more meaningful connections between people and their skill sets, then a sort of combustion occurs.
It’s obvious that one key to Erica’s success lies in the fact that she uses the tools of connection herself. She stresses that connecting isn’t about how many LinkedIn contacts or Twitter followers you have; it’s about the quality of your connections. As a rule, Erica spends 30 minutes a day on Twitter or LinkedIn, not just collecting contacts but nurturing existing ones and selectively seeking the right connections. “I use Twitter to follow news and share perspectives, but also to discover like minds – to find people who might think in similar ways.”
Perhaps the biggest factor in Erica’s success is her willingness to put herself out there, to make connections with any individual. “We don’t need to see ourselves as below anyone. I’ve emailed Sheryl Sandberg. We are all human and people want to connect with you when you’re open, authentic and genuine.”
And that is why Erica will keep her audiences dancing. To show them in an immediate and authentic way how powerful it is to break out of our traditional roles and expectations to take new risks, be curious, and create new connections. “The energy we create when we connect is the foundation for the change we can make in the world.”