Collaboration and Leadership: It Takes a Village

There’s a unique bond that happens between business travelers when flights are delayed. We all grab our laptops and try to make the most of our time on the ground/tarmac in a desperate effort to preserve the delicate work-life balance we’ve constructed. We make apologetic calls home to the spouses who desperately need a break, and we begin rapidly assessing the potential impact of future delays. On this particular severely delayed trip, I was huddled around the one accessible power source with a senior design leader for a tech company. I was struggling to concentrate because every few seconds an alert would go off on his computer. After a few dozen times, I leaned over and said jokingly “wow, you’re quite a popular guy!” He was not amused.

This, naturally, made me more curious about the alerts going off. I noticed that no matter which app popped up, he immediately clicked the X button to close the unread message. Slack, Yammer, and Google Hangouts kept pinging him, but he refused them all. Then in a burst of frustration, one last alert went off and he grumbled “I don’t need your advice! But thanks (sarcastically)” as he clicked the exit button on an app. It was only a few minutes later that his phone rang. His side of the conversation went like this:

“Yeah…yeah, I know….sure…I appreciate that but…but….LISTEN, I CAN EITHER HOLD A CAMPFIRE AND LET EVERYONE SHARE THEIR FEELINGS ON THIS OR I CAN GET THE JOB DONE!”  (pause) “I hear you but they’re not ready….and we won’t meet the deadline if I do…the only way it will get done is if I just do it.”

Yammer, Slack, Skype, Google Hangouts, Google Docs, Dropbox, Box, Trello, Basecamp, and a few hundred other products on the market all have one aim—encourage collaboration. It’s a multi-million dollar tech industry trying to solve a non-tech problem. Sure, the tech can make collaboration between cross-functional and remote teams easier, but at it’s core a lack of collaboration is a people problem.

Collaboration is a business imperative. From the front lines to the C-suite, collaboration impacts virtually every aspect of business. From performance to profitability and employee satisfaction, studies have shown that organizations with strong collaborative cultures outperform their competitors. So, how does one establish a culture of collaboration? There are a number of key components, but here are a few to establish a foundation:

Personality.  Personality in aggregate becomes culture. If you hire all Type A people, you will inevitably create a driven, aggressive, competitive culture. The same goes for collaboration. As a part of the interview process, be clear that collaboration across teams, divisions, and leadership is a critical aspect of your organization. Be sure that the individual wants to work in a culture of high collaboration and interdependence. Additionally, consider using a personality assessment to inform the selection process and ask data-driven questions as a follow-up from the assessment. Other key behaviors you’ll want to consider in that assessment are openness to experience, transparency, and accountability.

Modeling. A collaborative culture must be modeled from the top down. Take a deep look at the way the top leaders in the company make decisions and communicate. Are their conversations inclusive and transparent or are decisions made behind closed doors and communicated via email. Similarly, it’s valuable to take a look at the hierarchical structure of the company. The more a traditional hierarchy is minimized, the more it encourages collaboration across silos and removes the traditional approval structure. Seemingly insignificant things can greatly affect the perception of openness to collaboration including the size of a leader’s office. He who has the largest office has the last word.

Get personal. Encourage friendships in the office and facilitate those relationships through organization wide initiatives. Something as simple as an internal social media site will allow people to share common interests and connect across divisions. Share personal accomplishments publicly when possible. Celebrate the employee who just completed their first half-marathon and who just had a baby! Those simple gestures convey a message of caring and express how important each individual is to the organization. And it creates bread crumbs of information to connect strangers in a meaningful way.

Share wins, big and small. A culture of shared responsibility should also be a culture of shared celebration. Communicate milestones and achievements in a meaningful way and emphasize the collaborative nature of the solution. An inclusive celebration message should identify everyone who played a part in the process (no matter how small). In an interdependent organization design, there are no small players.

Coach. Even when you select individuals who value collaboration, and try to connect them as much as possible, that doesn’t mean magic will always happen. Consider formal training to help leaders understand the value and mission of interdependent leadership. Given the highly complex nature of leading across boundaries, don’t assume it will happen naturally. Support it purposely and formally.

Technology. While technology can’t create collaboration where it doesn’t live, it can help already collaborative teams, leaders, and individuals enhance their collaboration and drive productivity. Whether through instant chat, video calls, group whiteboards, or project timeline applications, the technology can provide a playground for collaboratively primed leaders to innovate. But consider using technology to do more than just to complete projects. Top leaders could create their own video blog sharing their progress, challenges, and ask for opinions. Discussion boards and polls also encourage open communication and idea sharing.

When it comes to collaboration and technology, it isn’t as easy as “if you build it, they will come.” But perhaps it’s closer to “If you build it, nurture, and support it, the right ones you hired will come!”