There is a reason that collaboration skills are some of the most sought-after leadership skills today. Traditional organizational structures and leadership paradigms are increasingly ineffective in a world of complexity, exponential change, and extreme interconnectedness. Command and control only works when you can accurately predict and plan for the future. Top-down leadership is best suited in stable, repeatable environments. The all-knowing leader who will guide us to the promised land looks more like the emperor who has no clothes.
One 2021 study estimated that 1.145 trillion MB of data was created every day. In our information-rich environment, no one person can scan, manage and react. But by collaborating together, we can increase our ability to respond to the environment.
As General Stanley McChrystal reflects in his book, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, on his experience in Iraq: you can be far superior in resources, training, money, and equipment, and still not stand a chance against loosely affiliated, nimble networks of passionate people united by a common purpose. As the book informs us, this is a new world that requires new ways of organizing. For McChrytal, it was to bust the bureaucracy (in the military, no less) and form a collaborative, agile, highly interconnected “team of teams.”
No doubt, leading collaboratively requires us to learn new skills and also to unlearn some others. Our old leadership models are more like directing a marching band: play these notes at this specific time, move here with precision. The emerging model is one of a jazz band, skillfully playing your instrument with a keen ear to what is emerging, where your fellow musicians are taking the music, at times being in the forefront and other times the background.
Collaboration is both different and more difficult. The good news is that you don’t need high-stakes circumstances, like a war, to hone your collaboration ability. It happened to me again yesterday. I had the kernel of a good idea and invited three others to work with me to bring it to life. Our task was to help twenty-five small business owners take consistent actions weekly to build their businesses. Our goal was to make this necessary (but sometimes a daunting task) easier and fun – and to instill some external motivation to create the practice and discipline.
As the four of us talked through approaches, I was not disappointed. The essence of the idea remained, yet was different. Different in ways that were better. The parts of the design that I was struggling with were resolved with solid airing and fresh insights. This was a simple task, perhaps, but illustrative of collaborative leadership nonetheless.
Let me break down what I did:
- I was clear about our purpose and task.
- We started with ground rules that asked for ideas and fresh thinking.
- I created the team intentionally for a diversity of backgrounds and expertise.
- I was candid about the areas where I needed new thinking and perspectives.
- We had a free-wheeling conversation where new ideas surfaced and were welcomed.
It’s a bit of synchronicity that this group meeting fell the day before I planned to write this blog on what collaborative leaders do. Yet it illustrates collaborative leadership skills quite clearly.
So, here is the punch line!
Here are the five things that leaders do to foster collaboration:
- Establishes a Compelling Purpose and Clear Direction: Note that direction is NOT a plan; let the plan emerge together.
- Nurtures a Climate of Safety and Trust: Psychological trust that is! Here is a great HBR article on how to do that!
- Creates a Team Environment of High Accountability: These are not just “feel good” teams – but teams that get results!
- Connect People and Ideas, Both Inside and Outside of the Organization: Collaborative teams are networked – helping to bring in information from a wide number of sources.
- Promote and Utilize Differences to Nurture Creativity and Solution Finding: Differences are valued – not just tolerated.
If you flip it, here are five things leaders do that get in the way of collaboration:
- Fail to Communicate Purpose and Direction: Relying on “it’s your job” or “because I said so” as a default approach. Or they assume others know the purpose and direction (hint: mind-reading is a bad strategy).
- Encourages Competition and One-Upping: Competitive energy that is focused internally misses the point and tears teams apart.
- Fails to Insist on Individual Contribution to the Work: Collaborative teams have strong teamwork but are also super focused on achieving the task.
- Relies Only on Their Personal Ideas, Approaches, and Worldviews: As a leader, they think they have to have it all figured out and have all the answers.
- Favors Homogeneity Rather than Diversity: Being uncomfortable with differing points of view kills collaboration. Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is needed!
Based on a decade of work, study, and immersing myself in collaborative work situations, I’ve developed two tools to help clients assess how their collaboration skills stack up:
- Collaboration Team Skill Assessment
- Collaboration Individual Assessment
If you’d like me to email them to you, simply reply to this blog!
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About the Author: Kris Taylor
Fueled by their shared passion for people-centric organizations that achieve business results, Kris Taylor joined Joe Indiano to found Apeiron, where professionals join together in an abundant, entrepreneurial community to grow sustainable businesses by collaborating together. Bringing together highly skilled consultants across functions, Apeiron is creating the “workplace of the future”, where talented professionals come together to service clients with an agile, collaborative approach to tough business problems.
Kris is also the founder of Evergreen Leadership in 2004 and has worked with over 80 companies across the US to develop customized leadership development programs focused on 21st-century skills. Evergreen Leadership is known for its high-impact retreats, coaching, and learning programs, specializing in fostering agility, collaboration, relationship building, accountability, creativity, and innovation.
Kris writes, speaks, teaches, and coaches leaders at all levels, from the C-suite to high-potential emerging leaders. She is committed to giving back in meaningful ways, most visibly with Evergreen’s Annual Community Builder Award. Since 2015, fifteen leaders across the mid-west have come together for the Connect and Create Retreat.
Her many years of work experience are rich in variety – beginning in education and non-profit for ten years before making a career change with RR Donnelley. In this Fortune 200 company, she fulfilled many roles from Human Resources to Operations to a corporate role in Learning and Development over fourteen years.
On the faculty of Purdue’s Certificate Program in Entrepreneurship and Innovation for seven years, Kris developed and taught a course on consulting, as well as a course entitled Your Entrepreneurial Career. Kris is also the author of author of Owning It: Take Control of Your Life, Work and Career and The Leader’s Guide to Turbulent Times: a practical, easy-to-use guide to leading in today’s times. She holds a Master’s Degree from Krannert Business School at Purdue University and did her undergraduate work at West Virginia University.