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Collaborative Leadership: A Cure for Corporate Crisis and Change

Leadership is a team effort. No individual has the necessary knowledge and experience to solve today’s problems alone — it requires multiple people with different kinds of expertise. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us this. It highlighted that those who stood out as effective leaders for handling the crisis led collaboratively. Traditional command-and-control leadership didn’t cut it.

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Organizations did not need a pandemic to realize that collaborative leaders — those who put ego aside, involve people with relevant expertise and display empathy and trust — are more effective. For several years, authors writing about management have been discussing how the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world in which we live (a VUCA world), requires the skills employed by collaborative leaders.

In fact, companies see these leaders as essential in today’s partnership-oriented business environment. They foster unity across organizational silos to make decisions quickly, gain cross-functional collaboration and create cohesive teams. By building trust, collaborative leaders create a culture of innovation.

Yet in many organizations, traditional directive leadership has been predominant, and their leaders do not necessarily have the skills to lead collaboratively. This lack of skill was evident in a 2019 PWC CEO survey where 55% of company leaders claimed they were not able to innovate effectively. Leaders need a blueprint that describes how to be the collaborative leaders that are crucial for company success.

Through in-depth research and behavioral analysis of highly successful collaborative leaders the past 20 years, I have identified key characteristics that those leaders have in common. They are inclusive, culturally adaptive, empathetic and nurturing. In order to learn and demonstrate these characteristics, leaders must cultivate a key foundational trait, which is tempering ego.

Collaborative leaders side-step their ego to focus on others and go beyond self-interest. They are self-aware and see the impact they have on others. Because they don’t look for affirmation, they are capable of being vulnerable and admit they don’t know all the answers. They have the confidence to step aside to let others shine and share their expertise. Tempering ego enables collaborative leaders to see outside themselves and relate to the emotions of others. They can wholeheartedly listen to their people and value what they have to say and contribute, thereby engendering connections and solidifying teams.

Because collaborative leaders re-center their attention from themselves to their teams, they can use three strategies that work particularly well in navigating crisis or change.

Coalesce Diverse Expertise and Experience

Collaborative leaders evaluate a variety of different sources of information and expertise and incorporate other people into the decision-making process. They draw from diverse perspectives, stimulating collective problem-solving. By meaningfully involving others this way, they increase each team member’s sense of self-efficacy and control even in turbulent times. Working in an egalitarian way, they are more approachable and attract a strong network of support.

For example, “Rafael,” the new CEO of a biological services provider, faced the crisis of his organization being under imminent threat of discretization. He explained how his inclusion of multiple experts — including competitors and critics — in analyzing and rectifying this dire situation saved the flailing organization.

“We illuminated and owned every single issue and mistake, offered root-cause analysis that explained why our system allowed for issues, and shared critical action plans designed to prevent similar problems. By doing this we demonstrated accountability for our past and that we were receptive to inclusion of our most vocal critics in the spirit of making things better for the community we served.” – CEO of a biological services provider

“Samantha,” the head of regulatory affairs for a biopharmaceutical company, was having difficulty getting FDA approval of a new biological compound while at the same time trying to solidify her cross-functional team. During one meeting, she brought her team members together to present and discuss data with representatives of the FDA. After the meeting, she made sure that each person gave their impressions. As a team, they put together a document to bring back to the CEO. Although she was ultimately the one who was accountable, she knew the quality of the effort would be enhanced by the multiple perspectives.

Share Power and Information Early and Often

Collaborative leaders share power and information, avoiding logjams created by hierarchies. Transitioning from a linearly controlled process to a matrixed-connective process allows for dialogue up, down and across the organization, continually infusing new information and accelerating action. Distributing power among team members grows trust and increases team performance

By sharing information, collaborative leaders lay the groundwork so that teams can successfully engage in working out problems and making decisions. To develop and coordinate collective understanding, critical thinking, and action requires leaders to communicate in the moment, thoroughly and broadly.

This is what a manufacturing business unit president, “Patrick,” who has a knack for rescuing failing teams did. Regarding one particular turnaround, he said, “I’d see people working against each other and the first thing I did was try to fix it. It was siloed, very individualistic; everybody was out for themselves. There was a lot of backstabbing going on. I made sure that there was clarity around each and everybody’s roles contributing to the greater win. And then we developed a cadence, we literally rebuilt the team with an aggressive look at turning the business around.”

Similarly, a CFO of a Fortune 500 company, “Lauren,” involved her group in the process of addressing a significant issue.

“I sort of hit them with a splash of cold water by telling them that the bottom line says we’re going to lose $10 million this year and this is not acceptable. So now that I had everyone’s attention, I told them that I didn’t have the answer, but that I wanted to work with them to find it.” – CFO of a Fortune 500 company

Together they identified the contributing issues and obstacles to action, worked out potential solutions and made a decision for moving forward.

Show Empathy, Listen and Relate

Collaborative leaders create a culture of trust in which people can speak up, share ideas and not be muted by fear. They build connections with people at a personal level by tapping into their shared humanity. They create common ground that diminishes hierarchical differences and values inclusiveness and empathy, helping people feel more secure during crises and change. They ask questions, listen and respect all people, establishing a sense of community and belonging.

“Melissa,” an executive of a Southeastern utility, dealt with two major hurricanes in ten months, one of which caused their 750,000 metered customers to lose power.

“It was devastating. There was flooding; about 14 people died in the area. Forty of us were in the storm center that was built to withstand [Category] 5 hurricanes. Well, some of the hurricane shutters failed. A plate glass window fell on our logistics head. I was picking glass out of his forehead and back. It was pretty much of a panic. I was calm and so others calmed down. We got up the next morning and there's devastation everywhere. So, I got our team together and said, 'Our job is not to bring power back. People are depending on us to get their lives back. Yeah, things are bad, but we're going to get through this and it's going to be better." – Executive of a Southeastern utility

Melissa's empathy for her staff at the storm center, and for their customers, engendered trust that pulled them together to cope with the terrible circumstances.

Uncertainty and volatility will be with us for the foreseeable future. Renowned leadership expert Warren Bennis noted, “In life, change is inevitable. In business, change is vital.”

The pressure is on for leaders to hone their collaborative skills, and by doing so, facilitate development of those skills in others. By adopting these behaviors and strategies, they will be well-equipped to lead the way through these times and the times ahead.

About the Author

Carol Vallone Mitchell, Ph. D. is the co-founder of Talent Strategy Partners and author of Collaboration Code: How Men Lead Culture Change and Nurture Tomorrow's Leaders


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