Why Collaborative Leaders Are More Successful

“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.”

– Henry Ford

Organizations are becoming more and more complex. Cross-functional interaction and interdependence has increased the need for leaders who know how to work with and through others. Recent research from the Conference Executive Board’s sister organization, CLC, underscored this in their 2012 Data Survey of 23,000 employees. Here are just a few highlights:

  • 80% of employees said their workloads increased
  • 50% of employees had the number of people involved in making a decision increase
  • 60% of employees had more than 10 people involved in their day-to-day work
  • 63% of employees had to regularly collaborate with people in different locations

While this research drives home the need for collaboration among leaders in any organization, we have seen first hand that leaders lack the skills needed to effectively collaborate. There are several reasons for this, but most of the time leaders do not collaborate with one another for the following:

  1. Split allegiance: loyalty to functional team and operational team feels in conflict  
  2. Functional focus: enmeshed in their own functional responsibility they lack an understanding of how others are impacted by their work
  3. Compensation: leaders are not rewarded to work with others
  4. Corporate Culture: not part of the required DNA, noone else role models the behavior
  5. Power Struggle: ego clashes, desire to be top dog, need to be right
  6. Leadership Styles clash: different styles – aggressive vs. thoughtful, data vs. people oriented, individual vs. team player – creating tension and lack of alignment
  7. Different vision among cross-functional partners: some want innovative new ways of executing, some want to hold onto to past success

Our recent work with a brand new leader of a cross-functional commercial operations team offers a glimpse in the contrast between a leader who is collaborative and the prior leader who was not. A few months ago, the CEO was forced to remove a leader who many had considered perfect for the job: bright, articulate, and ambitious. This leader had a vision, but he never shared it with anyone. He made decisions, but only alone. He issued edicts to his team. He never shared data or developed team members. People were doing duplicate work because roles weren’t clarified. Communication wasn’t two-way. He managed up well, but his peers and direct reports found him difficult to deal with. This attitude pervaded his team and most people in the organization felt like the whole team was made up of the same type of self-centered leaders out for their own gain.

But a funny thing happened. After assigning a new leader known throughout the organization for working well through others, the new leader saw an opportunity to create a more collaborative team. Right from the start, he spoke one-on-one with all of the team about the need to change the team’s reputation and recommit to become a team others could count on. Team retreats were scheduled and the tough conversations were delivered among the group. Trust slowly started to rebuild. Leaders who were siloed and sullen were now noticeably different. Roles were clarified and decision making became more about buy-in. Now, there is a noticeable difference in this team. People are working together and having more fun. They are more committed to the company purpose and they really want to give 100%. 

Today’s leaders certainly need to: have strong visions, know how to lead and develop others, communicate with clarity, act decisively, and execute change initiatives. But, if they do not know how to work with and through others, they will simply not be successful. The good news is, leaders can be taught to collaborate more effectively. Through our work with the new leader and his team, we used the 3 steps below to create the foundation for a culture of collaboration. 

3 steps to adding effective collaboration skills

  1. Take stock of your current reputation by asking others: “How are you perceived in the organization? What are you known for? How do people misunderstand you and what you stand for?” Once you have gathered this information, commit to the 1-2 things you want to change about your reputation. Leverage the strengths you have which will allow for more collaboration and driving for results can be a strength for everyone if you turn the objective from your individual success to the team success.
  2. Identify the relationships that you need to improve which will have the biggest impact on your ability to get your job done. If you know there is a relationship that needs repairing, sit down with the leader and genuinely own your role in the conflict. Talk about what you will do in the future to keep the relationship a positive one. Recognize that trust is built slowly by keeping commitments and talking through disagreements sensibly.
  3. Find a role model in the company who collaborates well and ask him or her to mentor you around how he/she does it. Discover why this person finds it so valuable to collaborate. 

Is collaboration one of your leadership competencies? If so, how adept are your leaders in using this key skill of leadership? Do your senior leaders in the organization understand how important collaboration is to getting work done in today’s complex cross-functional systems?