Does The Future Belong To Collaborating Leaders?

If you consider any pressing challenge that leaders and organisations face today, the chances are that it cuts across vertical, horizontal, stakeholder, demographic, and geographic boundaries. Collective problems by definition need collaborative solutions supported by collaborating leaders. And yet all the evidence is that we are struggling to foster productive collaboration in our workplaces and the collateral and opportunity costs are enormous.

Today’s organisations exist in an increasingly complex and ever-shifting ocean of change. As a result, leaders need to rely more than ever on the intelligence and resourcefulness of their staff. Collaboration is not a ‘nice to have’ organisational philosophy. I believe it is an essential ingredient for organisational survival and success.

The traditional organisation’s view is that information flows vertically up and down the chain of command, in a more or less controlled manner. Groups are bound by function or geography to support better coordination above and below. The trouble is that today’s workplace is being transformed by social, political and technological drivers, meaning that information and communications can flow from any and all directions.

Leaders, in addition to understanding how to work vertically, now need to know how to work in all directions and with all people regardless of their occupation, level, location, ancestry, nationality or religion.

According to Gensler’s 2013 US Workplace Survey (WPS), the most effective, productive workplaces are those that balance focus and collaboration, providing employees with space to work intensely on individual tasks and to gather with colleagues to brainstorm, complete group work or just enjoy a little social interaction.

“Our survey findings demonstrate that focus and collaboration are complementary work modes. One cannot be sacrificed in the workplace without directly impacting the other.” Diane Hoskins, Co-Chief Executive Officer, Gensler.

This shift towards greater collaboration is already occurring and many employees find themselves working increasingly with individuals across functions, departments and geographies, and report that work has become increasingly collaborative. Meanwhile managers experience greater demands as their spans of control increase, requiring greater leadership collaboration in order to get things done.

It could be that today’s work challenges may be too complex and volatile for individual leaders to get traction

Leadership effectiveness in the future may be determined more by the quality of leadership collaboration. And, a recent study of senior executives of international firms published by Korn-Ferry, the world’s largest executive search firm, and The Economist resoundingly confirms the theory that tomorrow’s organisations will be managed by teams of leaders. Asked who will have the most influence on their global organisations in the next ten years, 61 per cent responded ‘teams of leaders’; 14 per cent said ‘one leader’.

That does not mean, however, that we no longer need leaders. Instead, we have to recognise a new paradigm: not great leaders alone, but great leaders who exist in a fertile relationship with a Great Group. In these creative alliances, the leader and the team are able to achieve something together that neither could achieve alone. The leader finds greatness in the group. And, he or she helps the members find it in themselves.

If the current research is to be believed, we have a way to go

As an example, according to the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) only 36 per cent of employees are effective in peer interactions and only 7 per cent of organisations are focusing on initiatives to improve peer interactions. The main barriers cited to improved collaboration are employee hesitation (do I know how?), silos (we are too busy here), and lack of value (how would this help me?).

No clear definition and context

Another part of the problem, I believe, is that we often don’t have a clear definition and context for collaboration

Often organisations mistake interactions such as coordination (I’m handing this over to you) or cooperation (I’m helping you out) and communication (I’m keeping you up to date) with true collaboration.

Productive collaboration is not about endless meetings, but opportunities for people to come together to work on something that is value building. I think it is important that we differentiate collaboration from other interactions that people have with colleagues in a work setting so we can set about fostering the conditions that lead to greater collaboration.

Collaboration is about deploying the best collective efforts of others in a focused manner and it is at the heart of strategy, culture and change flexibility.

Collaboration is a leadership issue

Regardless of how creative, smart and savvy a leader may be, he or she can’t transform an organisation, a department or a team without the brain power and commitment of others. Whether the change involves creating new products, services, processes – or a total reinvention of how the organisation must look, operate, and position itself for the future – success dictates that the individuals impacted by change be involved in the change from the very beginning.

Many organisations in the public and private sectors are trying to capture and communicate the cumulative wisdom of a workforce, by investing hundreds of millions of dollars in portals, software, and intranets. But collaboration is more than the technology that supports it, and even more than a business strategy aimed at optimising an organisation’s experience and expertise. Collaboration is, first and foremost, a change in attitude and behaviour of people throughout an organisation. Successful collaboration is a leadership issue.

Visioning strategy and problem solving are all team sports

Today’s most successful leaders guide their organisations not through ‘command and control’, but through a shared purpose and vision. These leaders adopt and communicate a vision of the future that impels people beyond the boundaries and limits of the past. But if the future vision belongs only to top management, it will never be an effective motivator for the workforce.

The only organisation vision worth a damn is a shared vision.

Graham Hart

On considering problem solving, the University of Michigan found that when challenged with a difficult problem groups composed of highly adept members performed worse than groups whose members had varying levels of skill and knowledge. The reason for this seemingly odd outcome has to do with the power of diverse thinking. Diversity causes people to consider perspectives and possibilities that would otherwise be ignored. Group members who think alike, or are trained in similar disciplines with similar bases of knowledge run the risk of becoming insular in their ideas. Instead of exploring alternatives, a confirmation bias takes over and members tend to reinforce one another’s predisposition.

Trusting relationships are key

The outcome of any collaborative effort is dependent upon well-developed personal relationships among participants. Not allowing time for this can be a costly mistake. For example, all too often, in the rush to get started on a project, team leaders put people together and tell them, “to get to work”. This approach proves less than productive, as the group hasn’t had time to get to know one another, to discover each other’s strengths and weaknesses, to build trust, nor to develop a common understanding and vision for the project.

Leaders also need to trust their workforce. Despite lots of lip service to the contrary, too many leaders still don’t trust employees with the kind of open communication that is the foundation of informed collaboration.

How can Leaders support greater productive collaboration?
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  1. Investing in signature relationship practices

There is a subtle yet important difference between collaboration in pairs versus collaboration that happens in groups. When two colleagues work together to develop an idea, the ensuing collaboration can happen pretty much anywhere – in a hallway, café, at a desk or in any number of other spaces specifically designed for collaboration. When more people are involved, the spaces in which they collaborate need to support the process in order to be effective.

Equipment and tools, such as technology and communication devices not only facilitate collaborative spaces, but can also set the tone of the type of collaboration. Whether they are virtual spaces online, high-tech interactive whiteboards, video conferencing, or the more low-tech flipchart easel, consideration of how the spaces can be used to facilitate collaborative work is all-important.

Leaders can encourage collaborative behaviour by making highly visible investments—in facilities with open floor plans to foster communication, for example, which demonstrate their commitment to collaboration.

2.    Modeling collaborative behavior

In companies where the senior executives demonstrate highly collaborative behaviour teams collaborate well. Mentoring and coaching—especially on an informal basis—help people build the networks they need to work across corporate boundaries. Human resource departments that teach employees how to build relationships, communicate well, and resolve conflicts creatively can have a major impact on team collaboration.

3.    Supporting a strong sense of community

When people feel a sense of community, they are more comfortable reaching out to others and more likely to share knowledge. Cooperation increases when individual team member’s roles are sharply defined yet the team is given latitude on how to achieve the task. Create opportunities for empathy, from job shadowing to joint-team interventions that improve mutual understanding and support cooperation and collaboration looking for value.

4.    Select the best new leaders who are both task- and relationship-orientated

The debate has traditionally focused on whether a task- or a relationship-orientation creates better leadership, but in fact both are key to successfully leading a team. Typically, leaning more heavily on a task-orientation at the outset of a project and shifting toward a relationship-orientation once the work is in full swing works best.

It feels like we are living in the midst of a revolution at work and, I suspect, that the world of the future will not be served by the organisation of the past. The ex-military models (R&D, marketing, PR, product development, customer service etc) that allowed us to have very separate functions within an organisation and across the entire value chain of stakeholders begins to break down when the customer’s view of your company becomes the prevailing reality.

As you rise in an organisation, you see it more as a connected system, where one function’s outputs are another function’s inputs.


Larry McWilliams Senior Vice President, Campbell Soup Company

In short, today’s leaders should be fuelling and role modeling an atmosphere of inspiration and collaboration.

Thoughts to leave you with

What are the challenges your organisation faces that can only be solved by leading effectively across boundaries?

  • They cannot be solved by leading within your team, function or region alone.
  • They require reaching across boundaries by creating greater direction, alignment and commitment between various groups.
  • They require new approaches; what’s worked in the past won’t work now.
  • They may need changes in identity, not just changes in operational systems and structures, but what we do and also who we are.

You can use the reflective model below to work through the collaboration opportunity.

What, why and how of leadership challenges and development