Collaboration is the New Leadership

Nothing is Best Done Alone Anymore

Business has become far too fast moving and markets are so much more unforgiving that CEOs require the support of diverse viewpoints and experiences within their teams as a prerequisite for sustainable success.

Absolutely everybody today understands why collaboration is a necessary part of every high performing culture. Sports teams have practised this for many years now, and no successful sports teams ever achieved success without true collaboration being at the heart of all they do.

The days of the boss (inadvertently) appointing their direct reports in ‘their image’ should be long gone, but unfortunately, there are still far too many instances where they not only have similar character traits, but also look quite similar as well.

Whilst writing my latest book, Spike, ‘game-changing’ elections took place in both the UK and the USA. It was becoming obvious to me that our long enduring model for society, based on mutual trust and respect was perhaps in danger of falling apart.

This is not just because of the way technology has enabled us to spend ever more time in isolation with only our gadgets for company, but far more about the unrelenting rise of the cult of the individual coupled with the invidious growth of ‘me and my own’ as a mindset.

Spike is part of the “Strengths Based Revolution”, an uplifting shift away from the fixation with only developing our weaknesses, but with far more attention spent celebrating and capitalising upon our inherent strengths.

The Spike mindset works wonders for every individual’s confidence, self-esteem and performance, but it’s even more powerful when addressing the construction of high performing teams.

The whole Spike philosophy demands the humility to be honest about your limitations and seek out those with the complementary strengths (Spikes), that will bring the best out of you and them. This is the new collaboration, built on a positive interdependency.

The logic is obvious, but not many businesses ever appear to really practice or master this. Why?

It is important first to understand the tangible benefits of having a truly collaborative culture:

  • Better decision making
  • Better use of resources
  • Better ideas and initiatives
  • Better problem solving
  • Better outcomes for customers

No one can argue with the above – so why don’t we see more of this?

For Better or For Worse

Let’s start with the obvious, ‘turf’. So many of us have fought so hard to move up the corporate ladder and eventually get into a position where we can actually ‘call the shots’ and make the decisions that matter. Having got there, it’s not easy to relinquish the desire to continue to make and take decisions on your own, no matter what the corporate cost. This can lead to the reinforcement of ‘silo’ thinking and behaviour. Far too much energy is being drained on internal rivalries and unproductive competitive behaviours.

The old African proverb comes to mind, “When two elephant’s fight it’s always the grass that suffers”.

Secondly, most organisations still judge and measure their leaders on their individual results. This tends to kill any spirit of teamwork or collaboration. Sports teams have always been measured on how well the team does, no matter how many brilliant individuals they may have.

Great players don’t win trophies, great teams win trophies.

Collaboration must become one of the key threads of the culture. Therefore, new recruits need to be team players who embrace collaboration by both attitude and behaviour. There is still a tendency to recruit or appoint the ‘super star’ who always delivers despite being a self-serving ‘lone wolf’. This must change for true collaboration to work.

By building teams with all members having the opportunity to capitalise upon their differing Spikes, this encourages collaboration as nothing is best done alone anymore. The weaving in and out of each others talents can be very powerful and energising for all involved.

The Chief Executive and the top leadership team in the business must exemplify the traits of a strong interdependent team. They must be seen to be truly committed to each other’s success. They are the most influential positive role models.

Light the Blue Touch Paper but Stay Close

It is instructive to look at the recent high profile corporate failures at Uber. It was clear that it celebrated and thrived on the cult of the individual. It was inevitable that for Uber to continue to succeed, it needed a very different type of leader than the mercurial Travis Kalanick.

Collaboration is the New Leadership image with Uber phone

He brought drive, ambition and forcefulness that left its strong imprint on the culture and values of Uber. Without the determination, drive and massive self-belief that Travis clearly brought, perhaps Uber would not be the most highly valued start up in history.

The now leaked ‘values’ of Uber included Always be hustlin’, Let Builders Build, Meritocracy and Toe-Stepping and Principled Confrontation, these alongside the perhaps not mentioned, but manifestly real, the resilience to never back down no matter what the odds, this goes against everything that collaboration stands for.

Despite the negative media outcry, and the many resignations, the sexual harassment claims and the loud complaints of the Uber drivers being treated unfairly, the leadership remained ‘tone deaf’.

The lack of diversity at Uber was now coming home to roost. ‘Group think’ soon led to the bad habits of the boss becoming bad group behaviour.

The recently appointed new CEO of Uber, Dara Khosrowshahi, soon learned that his predecessor had forced through the appointment of two new non-executive directors to the board of Uber, without his or the board’s knowledge. He knew the media would soon make this unhelpful move public. He rightly and carefully decided to bring this difficult matter out in the open and vitally, to the attention of the employees of Uber.

He sent the following email, which says everything about the collaborative culture he is trying to build.


I wanted to update you on some disappointing news from today. Travis appointed two new members to Uber’s Board without discussing it with me or the Board of Directors more broadly. Anyone would tell you that this is highly unusual.

If your family or friends ask you about it, here is our press statement:

“The appointments of Ms. Burns and Mr. Thain to Uber’s Board of Directors came as a complete surprise to Uber and its Board. That is precisely why we are working to put in place world-class governance to ensure that we are building a company every employee and shareholder can be proud of.”

Just know that the most important work here is the hard work you’re doing on behalf of our Company. Keep focused, keep together, and keep going.

A new transparency and straight talking that will help build trust and vitally, collaboration.

Leaders can ensure that your cultural heritage need not determine your destiny.

Khosrowshahi deserves all the encouragement and support that his people and the board can give him.

All for One, and One for All 

Airbnb are a very different successful Silicon Valley start-up, they have taken an instructive contrasting approach.

Firstly, and insightfully, they have a disproportionate number of women at the top of their organisation. Whilst this is admirable for many different reasons, it is cleverly and perhaps uniquely, a formidable driver of collaboration.

All the historical research provides hard evidence that we tend to breed our men to be dominant, single minded and to back their judgements, nearly without consultation. Whilst there might be a little bit of exaggeration to this, there is far less exaggeration when we take a close look at how women tend to lead.

It is so much more about consensus and thinking much more about linking, rather than ranking. The ability to rise to the top of the organisation without being fixated upon the power of office, but far more about the huge privilege of leadership. Again, perhaps reflecting the traditional methods of socialisation for girls just about everywhere.

Secondly, Airbnb talk a lot about “belonging”. This is underpinned by not only its commitment to its mission and values, but also to its unrelenting belief in honest, two-way communication.

They have instituted bi-weekly ‘world calls’, where all of their employees (called “airfam”) from all over the world join in on a ‘live stream’. They also have many local informal meetings that drive two-way communication, which then fuels both transparency and vitally, boosts a collaborative culture.

There was a time when a business initiative fitted nicely and neatly into a function or a business unit e.g. “finance can deal with that, or it’s a marketing issue”.

Nowadays, it is very rare that the mission critical initiative or burning problem fits neatly anywhere. It is far more likely to be cross functional, cross business and complex. And therefore, for example, demands some support from Operations, with some guidance from Finance, and maybe the HR function needs to get involved.

How can this work without collaboration being at the heart of how the company operates?

Well it just can’t!

Working Together, Winning Together

Working Together, Winning Together

Leadership has always been difficult, and so it should remain. The top executives are generally handsomely compensated for being the leader, this can be in monetary terms, but it is far overshadowed by the special status they are given. Leaders have the ability to change people’s lives and their livelihoods for the better – this is a huge and special privilege.

There was a time when the people served the leader, increasingly today, the leader must serve the people.

Traditional cultures tended to ‘challenge down and support up’, progressive and successful businesses today now practise the opposite, they ‘challenge up and support down’.

Not many businesses have figured this out, let alone practice it, until they do collaboration will never become the natural order of things at work.

Whilst collaboration adds the benefits we have discussed, it rarely happens without enlightened leadership, like at Airbnb, in order to make it today’s reality.

We need to appoint a new set of leaders that think less about themselves and much more about the good of the organisation and their people. The future of leadership looks increasingly like a decisive argument for much more women at the top of organisations.

They tend to feel truly committed to each-others success rather than obsessed with their own personal success. 

The Leadership Essentials for Successful Collaboration:

  • It can never just be about “me”
  • Authority alone doesn’t make for inspired collaborative leaders
  • Search for team members that are different to you – diversity works
  • The 4 most powerful words for a collaborative culture – “What do you think?”
  • The best leaders are never afraid to ask openly for help
  • The high performing cultures have leaders everywhere – not just at the top
  • The best communicators – are the best listeners

Let’s be clear, partnering without reciprocal benefits is no panacea. It does not always work. You have to mean it, and really want it and work at it. If it’s not win- win, it’s not worth it. This is so much easier when there is an obvious interdependency which the Spike philosophy helps deliver, by calling on each-others standout strengths (Spikes) and fuels healthy and sustainable collaboration.

The double Oscar winning film director, Steven Spielberg sums it up beautifully, When I was a kid, there was no collaboration; it’s you with a camera bossing your friends around. But as an adult, filmmaking is all about appreciating the talents of the people you surround yourself with and knowing you could never have made any of these films by yourself.”

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My new book is “SPIKE”available on Amazon click here to order you copy now!

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