The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 102

Erica Dhawan

Get Big Things Done

You have a vast professional network, but are you using it the right way? According to Erica Dhawan, real power comes from the ability to leverage your network for answers. She calls this ability Connectional Intelligence, and it’s the subject of her new book, co-written with Saj-Nicole Joni, Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence. Discover the five C’s of connectional intelligence, what Oreos can teach us about how to go viral on social media, and one thing you can do every day to improve your Connectional Intelligence.


Book: Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence
Bio: Erica Dhawan is the world’s leading authority on Connectional Intelligence and the Founder & CEO of Cotential. Through speaking, training and consulting, she teaches business leaders innovative strategies that increase value for clients, deliver results and ensure competitiveness. She is the co-author of the bestselling book Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence. Erica was named by Thinkers50 as one of the emerging management thinkers most likely to shape the future of business.



Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host, and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.

We are lucky today. We have with us a friend of mine. Someone who I met through a group that I’m involved in, the MG100, and it has been such a pleasure to get to know her. Erica Dhawan. She’s a globally recognized leadership expert and keynote speaker driving innovation across generations and cultures. She is the CEO of Cotential. She’s spoken worldwide. She’s spoken at Davos. She’s written the book most recently, Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence. She wrote it with Saj-nicole Joni and Erica is here to speak with us about connectional intelligence and wherever else our conversation goes.

Erica, thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I should also say, thank you for being my friend.

Erica: Thank you, Peter. It’s great to be here. And likewise, thank you for being my friend.

Peter: So share with the audience, what is connectional intelligence?

Erica: A lot of ways we measure relationships is in the digital world is through quantity. How many Facebook likes we have, how many LinkedIn connections we can have. But in today’s hyper connected and over connected world, having a lot of networks doesn’t necessarily lead to measurable change. The key is the skill of how you leverage your networks of people, ideas, and resources to create valuable change in your community, in your company, and in your life.

And it’s this key skill that we call connectional intelligence. Which is the ability to create greater value out of fully maximizing your networks and relationships. What connectional intelligence really does is it shifts our notion from quantity to quality. And it also shifts our notion in our digital hyper connected world of not just understanding how do we find the answer, but how do we design our questions differently to generate new insights and reach out to networks that we may not be even connected to yet but could hold the key to the next breakthrough solution.

Peter: So if I’ve got 30,000 people following me and I’m not necessarily engaging with them in any particular way, you’re saying there’s no value in that. That it’s nice, it might massage the ego, but there’s no value to having a large network that you’re not actually getting anything from or contributing anything particularly to in a symbiotic way?

Erica: Absolutely. So, what we’ve seen as we’ve seen the rise of technology and tools to connect is that a lot of the emphasis was on connecting with others but not focusing at first with what problem are we trying to solve? Who do we want to engage to solve that problem?

And I’ll give you a quick story. This first story is about a woman named Jeannie Peeper. Jeannie has suffered from a very rare disease that’s called FOP. She was diagnosed with it when she was four years old. And to give you a sense, in the entire 20th century, there were only two research papers on this disease. So very rare. She went from doctor to doctor trying to better diagnose this illness and it was only when she was 25 years old, she met one specific doctor who had met 18 patients in his lifetime that had this disease.

And so what Jeannie did is she thought about how could I engage this network of people that had a common situation as me in a meaningful way. And so, she started writing letters to these patients and created the first ever Facebook group for patients with FOP. It began to get completely … It was a completely engaged network, not only for patients but for family and friends that were connected to the patients. Soon enough, it became the first ever knowledge network for patients with FOP and started to better teach doctors and universities how to better diagnose this illness. And this network has now funded medical research for this rare disease and has become a model for rare disease patient communities around the world.

So, if we think about that story, Jeannie didn’t start with how many connections can I create? She started with what problem am I trying to solve and how could I engage others in a way that is not only has a mutual benefit but allows us to care and create something even bigger together. And it’s from that place that connectional intelligence happens.

Peter: I love where you’re starting with this, Erica, because it’s starting with a mindset, right? It’s saying, are you just after a huge number or why are you doing this, why are you spending any time on Facebook or LinkedIn at all? And my question that comes along with that is certainly in the example that you used and a lot of the examples you use in the book, it’s almost like there’s some combination of I’m really devoting the majority of my time to this. This is a commitment that I’m making because I care so much about it. Here’s a woman with an illness that she cares so much about. Or, you talk about Khan of the Khan Academy or Michelle Fawn around the beauty and the YouTube videos that have garnered millions of views.

It seems there’s two things and I want to talk to you about both of them. One is the time commitment. Is this something to really spend half your time on or if you don’t want to spend a lot of time on it then why are you doing it anyway? You’re probably doing it for some other purpose in which case it won’t work.

And then the second question, which you don’t have to answer at the same time, is the fortuitousness of viral success, which you talk about a lot. And we’ll talk about the five Cs of connectional intelligence but before we do, I want to think about or talk about or get your perspective on, how much of this can be premeditated and how much of it is wow, here’s a person who hit a chord that went viral but we can’t necessarily preplan that. So, those are my two questions.

Erica: Great questions, Peter. So, let’s start with the first one which is really around do I need to be … Does this need to be my life passion and do I need to spend a lot of time doing this or can I contribute in a different type of way? And I think you hit on it perfectly that connectional intelligence is a mindset. Just like emotional intelligence in the 90s, it’s not something that you have to have 10 hours a day, doing in and out to build a community, it could be something that you contribute to in a different way.

So, let me give you an example. A few years ago at Colgate-Palmolive, a big toothpaste company as we all know. One team there had a scientific challenge. They had developed a new fluoride that they were meshing in their toothpaste. But there was a mechanical flow problem and the fluoride was getting stuck in the equipment, if wasn’t meshing well. All the chemists internally were trying to figure out why, nobody could. It was taking months and months of time and costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And at that point, one of the executives said, “Why don’t we ask a different network?” And it wasn’t something that a scientific company normally did. They decided to post this fluoride challenge on a website called Inocente which is a crowdsourcing community where scientists come together to help large companies solve scientific challenges. Within two days of posting that challenge, a physicist named Ed Meldrick looked at the problem and he said, “This isn’t a chemistry problem, it’s a physics problem. It’s about charged particles. You charge the fluoride one way, toothpaste the other.” Instantly, the problem was solved.

So Colgate learned a few things about that experience. One thing that they learned is that they didn’t even dare ask the physicists at their own company because they labeled it as a chemistry problem. And the second thing that they realized is that physicist would have never been hired by Colgate. He didn’t have the traditional resume. He’s had odd jobs throughout his life. And so really the crux of connectional intelligence is a mindset. And it’s a mindset around instead of just asking questions like we always have, it’s designing our questions in a way that we can be more strategic and broaden who we can access and help generating those insights and solution.

So that’s an example different from Jeannie Peeper who had a strong passion and built a community around her passion. That’s an example where a team may be able to tap unlocked knowledge inside their organization, maybe a physicist or outside, in a way that could contribute and lead to speed of execution.

Peter: It’s also an example where they didn’t spend a decade building that network. They went to a network that was already created. They asked a question that was engaging to that particular community that they don’t own. And then they took advantage of it. And I just recently spoke with Joshua Ramos who wrote The Seventh Sense who’s also talking all about networks and the importance of networks. And he’s really talking about in many ways, owning those networks. He’s basically saying when Amazon or Google owns that network, they have a tremendous amount of power. But what you’re saying here which is an interesting voice in that conversation is that you don’t have to own the network. You could step into the network and you can gain a critical advantage by being in the conversation with a bunch of other people.

Erica: Yes, exactly. And we’re not all going to build the next Amazon or Google. The key leadership skill that we can build is how can we engage. How do we strategically engage in the right diversity of networks that helps contribute to create that unlocked value? One of the other stories that I love to share is the story of the creation of the Doritos guacamole chip at Frito-Lay. And so you think about a product like that it would have come from product innovation or marketing. But it didn’t. It actually came from the Latino Employee Resource Network. That when combined at Frito-Lay had primarily come together for employee engagement.

But when they were combined they realized that they were asking different questions. And one of them that was obvious to them was why don’t we have a Doritos chip that fully targets the Latino customer segment. They came up with these ideas. The guacamole chip was $100 million product. Then the Asian network did the same thing. They created a curry chip that’s a bestseller in Asia. And now annually, Frito-Lay brings together these diversity networks, not just for employee engagement but to actually drive product innovation around unique customer segments.

So sometimes it’s solving an immediate problem like Colgate. Sometimes it’s looking at the networks that we already have that exist and asking what other problems can they solve and how can we engage them in a way, at our fingertips, without more budget, more legal approvals, more technology, to solve problems with us.

Peter: You know, it’s such a great example because I’m not part of the Latino community. And if you pitched to me a guacamole chip, I would say that’s a terrible idea. I like dipping my chips in guacamole. I don’t want guacamole in my chip, or a taste of guacamole. I don’t see it. I don’t want to buy it. And I’m not the right person to be asking, right? So, that’s to your point that not only be connected with your network but be connected with a variety of networks that you couldn’t possibly own because they are so different from you. Right? Because the intelligence that you get, the connection that you get, the critical advantage of some of those relationships by definition are based in the fact that they are not like you. And that would mean that it’s not all about spending your energy and investment to create your own big following community that you can then connect with.

Erica: Absolutely. It’s about partnership and it’s about engagement. And in our digital hyperconnected era, the key is not connecting more, it’s connecting intelligently. And that’s a big distinction from the Malcolm Gladwell connector idea just a decade ago.

Peter: So talk to me just about that second question briefly which is the sort of viral nature of some of what you describe in the book and how you really spread an idea and the fortuitousness of that versus the predictability of it?

Erica: So, what we’ve found by studying leaders and organizations that were able to get big things done and others not was that it was not just the skill of connectional intelligence that existed within teams. But it was preparing and designing for connectional intelligence. Many times we look at virality stories. And yes, there are some specific ones that are just made by the news, or made by a Ted Talk or made by a specific situation. But a lot of them aren’t even though they seem to be.

I’ll give you one example. A few years ago at the Super Bowl 2013, there was a blackout at the game. Some of you that watch the Super Bowl, the biggest sporting event in the US, may remember it. This blackout lasted 46 minutes and in just four minutes of the blackout, Oreo, the brand, designed, captured, and tweeted out on Twitter an ad that said, “Power out, no problem. You can still dunk your Oreo in the dark.” And it went absolutely viral. It had 20,000 retweets, 15,000 Facebook likes, and the next day it was dubbed the best marketing ad at Super Bowl 2013 beating our every multi-million dollar commercial, including Oreos. Made in four minutes and entirely free.

So, you think about that and you say, how did this happen? This must have been that lucky viral situation but it actually wasn’t. The Oreo team had designed and prepared for that moment for two years prior to that game.

Peter: You mean, they’re the ones that shut the lights out at the Super Bowl?

Erica: No, no.

Peter: Is this a conspiracy theory? I’m loving it.

Erica: What they had done is they had created a cross-functional SWAT team that was specifically designed. They brought together the legal team, the ad agency, social media executives to practice launching real time ads around relevant news. Because they knew to compete in today’s era, they needed to be faster and more relevant. And do it and work in a way that would allow them to do that. So, typically an ad including Oreo’s Super Bowl commercial took six months to create and millions of dollars in analysis and research. But from two years before that game, they’d also created this cross-functional SWAT team. And this team had started to practice launching real-time ads together every single month. And it was a practice. A collaborative practice that they had built. By building that muscle of trust, it was in that game two years later, they were able to create that ad in four minutes that would have traditionally taken six months to create.

We often talk about the viral moments. But it’s actually the key question for those that are connectionally intelligent, is to ask how do we design and engage with others in a way to flip our normal ways of working? To be more relevant when it really matters?

Peter: Erica, you’re saying something else that I really love which is brilliance comes from creating the foundation of skill and competence and the practice is not about rehearsal, it’s improv. We’re not talking acting class, we’re talking improv class. We’re talking about the ability to very strategically hone the skills that allow you in a moment to pivot and apply them on instinct. I think we could do a whole podcast on that because it’s something really worth unpacking a little bit, how you develop the competence, or how you choose the competencies to really, really develop that allow you to sort of pivot in the situation. There’s some research I’ve read that I think is really interesting that intelligence is judged by how quickly you respond to a question, or how quickly you respond to a situation.

If you take an extra five seconds to respond to a question, you’re deemed research wise, you’re deemed from people’s perspectives less intelligent than someone who answers immediately. Now this research might be culturally different meaning it might be different if you did it in Asia versus Latin America versus Africa versus the US. But the idea is that there’s an underlying saying that this is what great experts do or this is what all athletic events are about but at athletic events, you know, you can practice certain things but there’s so many different variables because you’ve now got another team that you’re competing against. It’s about being such a great athlete that you can pivot at any moment and respond to a situation in an effective way. I love that.

Erica: Absolutely. And when people hear connectional intelligence. They immediately think of the networks and collaboration. But we’ll talk about the five Cs and one of our first foundational skills underneath connectional intelligence is curiosity. And it’s more what I would call a thinking intelligence. And what has happened in the world today is we are inundated with more emails, meetings, phone calls. And what we often lose from that is the drive in the disruptive spaces for that innovative thinking to generate those breakthrough insights. So in many ways, part of connectional intelligence is to kill those unneeded bureaucracies in order to create space for those ground breaking solutions.

Peter: Share with us the other four.

Erica: Sure. So, there are what we call the five Cs of connectional intelligence. The first I mentioned is curiosity. And curiosity the way we defined it is not just asking great questions but it’s designing your questions so that others can engage with you to help solve those problems.

The second is combination. So think of combination as the root of innovation. Combining lots of different ideas, people, and resources to come up with new and different results. So think of the Doritos guacamole chip example. It’s a great example of combining employees to solve a problem in an entirely different area.

The third is courage. And courage as we all know is such a foundational element of all of the examples that I shared. From Jeannie Peeper stepping out and being courageous when no one gave her permission or asked. With Colgate, reaching out and asking a different network outside which is not something the company had done before. And really be willing to have those different conversations despite traditional or the old ways of always doing things.

The fourth is community. And community, as we’ve seen in all these stories, is a foundational part. Being able to leverage groups of people that care about common issues.

And the fifth C is what I call combustion. So, once you have community, courage, combination, curiosity, the last piece is how do you ignite and mobilize these networks to generate greater value together? So whether it was Jeannie starting the rare disease network that now has led to the first ever medical research being funded around this disease because she created this global network of patients. Or Colgate being able to identify ways to drive better results by leveraging a crowd of scientists, experts outside their company. Or Doritos and beyond.

What individuals can do is they can really take … In the book we have a little quiz that you can take to begin to assess yourself on these five Cs. But the real power of that is not only to understand where do you fit among these five Cs? Are you high in curiosity? Are you medium in community? But to understand how do you better understand how do you better leverage others that have different strengths than you. And if you have certain strengths in certain areas, how do you design your teams to make sure that you can execute in different ways. Just like the law firm in the Oreo story, they have more of the combusters, the social media team. But they also had the lawyers with the deep curiosity analyzing every situation. And they also had the community of decision makers, the executives, in the room to make sure that got done.

Peter: One of the examples that you use, I don’t know if I wrote this example in my notes or this was the actual language that you used. But you were talking about the connectional intelligence capturing the cognitive surplus of individuals. I’m sure that’s your language. And I don’t know if it was me thinking or you said but I was thinking about Uber of the mind. Right?

Erica: Yeah.

Peter: It’s like Uber as this surplus. You probably said this and I probably just wrote down your words. Why are people so willing to offer their surplus mind share? Why? I mean, how do we tap into it is one question. But I’m super busy, you’re super busy. Everybody’s busy. Are there people just sitting around going I can’t wait to look for the questions I can share my intelligence on and what’s going on that people are freely sharing their perspectives on the internet in their networks with their connections?

Erica: Why would they even do this, right? So what we’ve found in our research is Malcolm Gladwell 10 years ago talked about the idea of the connector. And we took that a step further because what we saw was that we’re all connectors today. We’re over connected. And what we found was that there are three types of connectors that exist as we look at different collaboration in organizations and people and companies et cetera. What we saw that the three types of connectors are the thinkers, the enablers, and the connection executors.

Thinkers are the type of people that love to talk about ideas together. They love to generate what’s the big new perspective or how could we ask a different question. These are people with high levels of curiosity. This is the Colgate executive that said, “Well, why don’t we solve this fluoride challenge in a different way even though we’ve never done it.”

The second type are the enablers. These are the people that are more of those traditional super connectors. They understand if they have a problem they think of who are the five people that we need to surround ourselves with to solve this problem. So you could think about the Latino network at Frito-Lay saying, we’re a group of enablers in solving a different problem that we weren’t even asked to do.

Third type are the connection executors. These are more of those savvy contributors. This is the physicist that solved the problem at Colgate that wasn’t asked. There was a cash prize. So what we’ve found is that we’ve always have thinkers and enablers but there’s this rising breed of what we call the connection executors. And it’s people that are willing to contribute and engage outside of monetary desires because they want to learn and they want to be part of a solution. And so what we’ve found is 10 years ago there weren’t that many avenues to be able to contribute outside of our job, our team, our volunteer network, our neighborhood.

In our digital age, we’ve seen a radical shift of that. And the best example I can share from the US is just in the last month with the hurricanes across the US. There’s was a woman named Jessica Decker. Jessica is the quintessential connection executor that you’re describing. She lives in San Diego. She heard about the hurricane coming, Hurricane Harvey, in Houston. She wanted to do something because her friends lived in Houston. She tried to track them down but the phone service was going down and the 911 service stalled in Houston because there was so many calls. So, what everyone did in Houston that had and used Twitter is they started to share messages on Twitter of where help was needed most.

And Jessica is a data scientist and so she created an open map that mined these Twitter messages. She found a team of people around the world that wanted to help her. They created a 24 hour on call team. And they were using this map to visually show where help was needed most through Twitter messages. The US Coast Guard and Marine Corp used this map and they collected over 28,000 messages and noted that they identified over 5,500 people.

Peter: I think it’s really compelling that you find something you really, really care about, that’s important to you and then you find the network of other people who also really, really care about this. And there’s a tremendous generosity when you’re in a group of people and you all care about the same thing and you want to help. It’s not even about I’m helping you. It’s about together we’re helping this other thing and that creates a tremendous amount of energy and people are willing to commit any of their surplus mind share to this cognitive surplus of individuals to be channeled in that direction.

Erica: And our greatest sources of help are often where we least expect them. So, instead of asking who traditionally cares about this problem, it’s asking who else cares or who could care. And that’s where we get those really surprising, unique results, again, in a digital globally connected world.

Peter: Final question. If you were to give me advice about how I can become more connectionally intelligent, what would you tell me?

Erica: Number one, I would share the ten minute rule. And it’s to spend ten minutes a day improving your curiosity. And the way that you could do that is to think about what’s one resource or perspective that you would like to bring into your life that could help you ask questions. So it could be following three Twitter hashtags on something that you care about. It could be going on Quora and answering questions or sharing knowledge. But think about how you could spend 10 minutes a day connecting to something specific and unique that you care about.

The second thing that you can do is on my website, we have a quiz that you can take that will help assess you on the five C’s of connectional intelligence. And out of that report, you will better understand what connection style are you? Are you a thinker, enabler, or executor? And from that what you can do is not only begin to think about how well are you leveraging your strengths around collaboration but who else do you need to partner with to better become more connectionally intelligent. And so if you’re a thinker, you like to talk to a lot. Maybe you need to get a connection executor so you can create the Oreo moment of your team. If you’re the enabler, maybe you need to think like the guacamole chip example.

Peter: That’s great. And Erica, how do people get to your website? What’s your website?

Erica: So, my main website is and it’s where you can get some of these tools around the assessment and learn more about how to use this. And you can also find me at which is our corporate website for training and keynotes.

Peter: Great, and we’ll have both of those in the share notes. The book is Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence. It’s on the screen if you’re watching the video. Erica Dhawan, thank you so much both for writing the book and for your interesting and useful perspectives. For me, even having read the book, this conversation shed light on certain elements that I really appreciated and actually has gotten my mind really thinking about how I should shift things.

I’m one of the people who likes to spend some time on social media but really as little as possible. And actually, you’ve convinced me not to because it’s the smart thing to do and because I now see a path to do it in a way that I actually feel like I’ll be very engaged which makes all the difference. I don’t want to do it just because it’s strategic and I know I won’t be able to keep that up. But the idea of really connecting on the thing I care most about is very compelling.

So thank you, thank you for the wealth of wisdom that you’ve shared with us. And thank you for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Erica: Thank you so much, Peter. It was great to be on.

Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did it would really help us if you would subscribe on iTunes and leave a review. A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness and a lot of hard work that fails to move the organization forward as a whole. That’s the problem that we solve with our Big Arrow process. For more information about that or to access all of my articles, videos and podcasts, visit

Thank you, Clare Marshall, for producing this episode. And thank you for listening.


  1. cassia regina vanicola says:

    I totally agree with you when you say that we have to find a meaning in doing social media. We should do it not because people and corporations say it is strategic, but because we can connect with things that we care most. It’s been a call for me to act on this…

  2. Satish Pathak says:

    I fully agree with Erica Dhawan’s. Her 5C rightly fits with emotional connection. It perfectly matches to my projects that I’m doing–Satish Pathak

Comments are closed.