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Collaborative Leadership is an Art

“Never underestimate the power of a small dedicated group of people to change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead, PhD



Collaborative leadership is the capacity to engage people and groups outside one’s formal control and inspire them to work toward common goals – despite differences in convictions, cultural values and operating norms.

Most people understand intuitively that collaborative leadership is the opposite of the old command-and-control mode.  However, the consensus-based model defines a third distinct leadership style.

  1. Command-and Control- The leaders at the top of the organization have clear authority

  2. Consensus-All parties have equal authority

  3. Collaborative – The people leading collaborations have clear authority

It is not enough for leaders to uncover collaborative opportunities and expect to attract the best talent. They must set the standard for what a good collaborator looks like in that organization.  The middle of the organization can be sabotaged when politics or turf battles occur higher up the corporate ladder.  I have experienced this sabotage firsthand.  The president and CEO of a company for which I once worked did not feel the need to collaborate with his senior leadership team. To make matters worse, he refused to consider the suggestions and recommendations we had solicited from our clients to ensure a successful product launch. 


Many leadership teams composed of the CEO and his or her direct reports do not actually operate as teams.  It is my belief that CEOs must lead by depoliticizing their senior management teams and rewarding collaboration versus individual agendas. Executives should take the approach that allows their teams to share openly and honestly with a no-nonsense style.  This encourages people to disagree with one another in meetings while keeping the politics to a minimum, allowing real teamwork to take place.


Diverse Teams Produce Better Results

Research has shown repeatedly that diverse teams produce greater results, provided they are well led.  In order for corporations to remain competitive in the future, they will need to build diverse leadership teams.  It is critical to bring together people from different backgrounds, disciplines, cultures, and generations to be competitive.  However, frustration ensues when companies spend time and money to recruit top talent and then put them in homogenizing environments that kill creativity.  How often do we see that in today’s companies? How diverse is your immediate team in terms of gender, age or nationality? How much exposure do you have to Global markets? Does your network of people include younger adults who are new to the organization?

Leaders today must cross all boundaries of diverse thoughts and interconnections to harness ideas and recruit top talent.  The world we live in has changed.  Unless leaders understand the power of interconnections and tap into global resources today, they will be left behind. 


Highly productive collaborative teams include the reinvention of their talent strategies, diversity at all levels, external networks and strong internal connections.  Building a collaborative culture that embraces differences in convictions, perpetuates the highest values, looks beyond individuals’ specific agendas, and advances the shared purpose adds complexity to any collaborative efforts.


The Ability to Lead Leaders

An article I read in the Harvard Business Review: Bringing Mind Together, by John Abele, brought back some great memories from the years I worked there.  As founder of Boston Scientific, he describes how the company was renowned for its collaborative processes and the incredible thought leaders who invented breakthrough technologies.  Many interventional cardiologists today would agree that Boston Scientific’s products are some of the most innovative and life saving, providing the catalyst to advance future technology.  John revealed that many of their inventions and advancements were the collaborative efforts of two inventors who created one breakthrough technology that continues to remain the standard of care.

He made an important statement that I believe to be true for many leaders around the world: the ability to lead leaders is a rare skill! When you reflect on the outstanding leaders for whom you have worked or whom you have admired, what is the common thread?  They are great communicators, they are empowering, engaging, inclusive, and they create collaborative teams that share a distinct set of values and ethic.

Building a Collaborative Infrastructure

Is your company about to engage in a strategic or organizational change? If it is, you should consider incorporating a participative centralized process.  A participative enterprise seeks to mobilize everyone’s knowledge and it is centralized so the knowledge is coordinated and shared.

A great example of this process was Guidant Corporation’s formation of GAP teams. Guidant orchestrated a participative centralized process that took most of a year when Johnson & Johnson announced they were buying them.  Both CEOs directed their Executive and Senior Management teams to assigned groups in a partnership model to facilitate collaboration. The goal was to build strategies and implementation plans on how to integrate each division smoothly, while ensuring both companies retained their top talent.  It was a time of uncertainty for everyone.  However, it was fascinating to see how much knowledge we shared and how successfully both teams were able to advance the common purpose. 


Creating a Competitive Advantage

Article after article, paper after paper, and years of research on the topic of collaboration comes down to one common point: embrace diversity of thoughts and behaviors.  Building a collaborative community requires seven preliminary steps:

  1. Communication– Nothing is more important than to ensure communication among participants. Communication builds trust and relationships but most importantly, it must start at the top. Effective communication will ensure success.

  2. Authenticity – Cooperation will last as long as the communication is believable.

  3. Empathy & Uniformity – Incorporating this behavior within the community will motivate the group to sacrifice their own interests for that of the collective, increasing loyalty to the team.

  4. Fairness – People care about fair treatment. According to research, “fair” does not mean ‘equal’. People want to feel they are being treated fairly and care about doing the right thing, whatever it is. 

  5. Rewards and Consequences – Incorporating systems that appeal to participants’ intrinsic motivation is critical to set up the right behaviors. Reward on what the community is trying to achieve instead of reward or punishing them on their individual behaviors. Companies should not try to motivate teams with material payoffs; but rather focus on motivating them socially and intellectually by making cooperation social, autonomous, rewarding, and fun.

  6. Diversity – The data shows that companies with diverse leadership teams significantly outperform those companies with no or little diversity. Why kill creativity when you have the opportunity to encourage and embrace innovations and technologies or skills that positively affect your organization’s financial performance? Diversity makes for a richer, more innovative and valuable enterprise.  Achieving that value is the heart of collaborative teams.

  7. Reputation – It is the responsibility of the CEO to share the importance of maintaining a positive reputation internally and externally. Leading by example will motivate the organization to uphold and maintain a solid positive reputation.  This extremely important form of cooperation hinges on the team’s ability to advocate an environment of integrity, honesty and ethics. 

Being internally motivated to bring insight, creativity, diversity, flexibility, and innovation can come from anyone, anywhere and at any time.  In order to ensure successful collaborative initiatives and a culture of cooperation, you must include social conscience and authentic leadership in the process. Leading a collaborative culture is not easy.  However, when mastered, the rewards are significant and you have competitively position your company for the future.

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