Leadership in action : daily practices to develop collaboration

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(Version Française)

These are questions I love to ask during conferences or masterclasses : how can you develop your leadership ? What are the best universities to become a great leader ? I usually get an embarrassed silence as an answer. I can see people struggling while trying to elaborate some relevant response and realizing they don’t really know.

Likewise problem solving or collaboration, leadership is a topic discussed by just about everyone interested in management. Yet, very few come with specific routines and practices to develop this ability.

Leadership : definition

These are some Leadership definitions by the business dictionary :

  • the activity of leading a group of people or the ability to do this
  • the act of inspiring subordinates to perform and engage in achieving a goal

Leadership and collaboration

In a time when collaboration becomes key to move projects forward in an over complexified world, leadership becomes a key skill to inspire and engage colleagues (not necessarily subordinates) towards achieving a common goal. Therefore it is in the interest of the company that everyone develop leadership skills.

Collaboration is a tricky topic. Again, everybody talks about its value, the need to collaborate, and even the tools. Yet no one explains clearly how to collaborate, or rather, how to create the right context for collaboration to emerge.

Quite often I see people who are somehow customers of collaboration. They expect collaboration to appear out of the blue without changing much in their attitude. As if showing up was the only thing they had to do.

Actually, collaboration requires a bit more than showing up as the following story explains. It illustrates do’s and dont’s to develop leadership in a collaborative environment. Some down-to-earth practices for everyday professionals, guaranteed Steve Jobs free.

Engaging cross-functional and cross-national colleagues

Consider this very large international bank. A team is in charge of writing strategic memos about digital trends (Cloud, Data, Blockchain, etc …), memos to become the official position of the bank on the topic. As such, they aim to be read by the bank executives and implemented by the different branches (countries) once validated.

The biggest challenge of these projects is to engage experts throughout many divisions (IT, legal, compliance, …) and many countries to work on the topic. Baring in mind that these professionals don’t necessarily have time dedicated to do so. Yet, engaging them is key as they 1/provide insights on the topic in their own country/market and 2/ they are enablers in having the strategy implemented afterwards in their respective countries.

There are three project leaders with different approaches and results in terms or cross-functional and cross-countries members engagement.

Lamenting hierarchical levers

The first project leader, Julia, is really struggling with her topic. She laments three things. First, the fact that one expert moved from her division to another country : he is no longer available when she needs him the most.

Second, she doesn’t have enough hierarchical leverage to motivate the team members : she feels like these people don’t listen to her guidance and are not fully aligned with her objectives.

Third she doesn’t have all the required levers to make this work : there’s always something  or someone missing and she really is struggling to coordinate the whole thing.

She seems resignated, running out of ideas on how to make this work.

Granted Power

A second project leader, Isabela, uses granted power, a famous leadership anti-pattern. She has forwarded the mail she received from the COO asking people to collaborate on this project and she expects that will be enough to engage the people in her project. Funnily enough, this doesn’t seem to work as she also is struggling to get people onboard and get committed to her project.

This way of doing inspire a grin to Natalie, our third project leader : “I would never reply or get engaged should I receive such a mail” she said bluntly to Isabela.

Bringing Value

Natalie, has a completely different approach. She doesn’t really care about hierarchical leverage or granted power as she made clear with her reaction to Isabela tactics.

She has a software agile methodologies background and she is very practical. Her posture : if I want people to follow me, I need to consider what’s in it for them, what is the ROTI (Return Of Time Invested) from their perspective. ROTI formula is rather simple = (Brought Value) / (Time Invested). So she focusses on both bringing more value and limiting the time invested by people collaborating with her.

Rather than sending mails or using electronic channels, she go and visit experts to meet in their office, IRL. This allows her to make sure she creates bonds with the team members (Michael Ballé would say creating alliances). She also makes sure the expert understands what is at stake with the project. Then she interviews the expert to get his perspective on the topic and the elements specific to his country. On her way back, Natalie compiles all the knowledge into a slideware while it is still fresh in her mind. She then mails the slideware to the expert for review, asking for a feedback. This creates a much positive interaction than her reviewing the work that would be submitted (late and painfully) by the expert.

Last, when the document is updated with the expert feedback, she sends it back and invites the expert to show the slides to his managers. While doing so, not only does the expert delivers a synthetic and actionable view of his contribution to his manager (which brings value and visibility to his work) but he also does lobbying on that very topic in the local branch, preparing for the implementation phase : a grand slam of collaboration tactics.

Leadership in action

This is pure leadership in action. Natalie distributed community in five countries and four divisions is flourishing (even if she doesn’t use online collaborative platform, by the way). She doesn’t spare her efforts whenever she has to create relationship, she knows what it takes. If she has to fly to meet the people, then, she flies. The overhead is compensated by the quality results she manages to obtain, much quicker that the other project leaders.

This is not granted leadership, this is acquired leadership, out of effort, respect and practical routines. Natalie has stumbled upon this problem and understood that bringing value was a key to unlock collaboration when she needs it the most. She has now validated her strategy and developed her leadership.

Go and meet : Newamashi

You saw it coming didn’t you ? This is a lean practice. One of the 14 management principles identified by Dr Jeffrey Liker in his book The Toyota Way. This is what we call Newamashi : we go and see people involved in project and/or decisions, to engage them, one by one, with respect to their time and other functions.

The idea is to have their inputs and contributions, and let them know what the output and decision is before presenting it to everybody.

This is a key practice we develop with the people we coach. We always challenge the easy way (I’ve sent a mail / I have posted a discussion) and make sure we go and meet people to ensure best communication possible.

Developing Leadership

How do you create a fruitful collaboration environment ? How do you bring value to the people you want to engage ? How do you know you bring value to them ? How do you help them saving time when working on your project ? How do you develop leadership skills in your team members so that they become better at collaboration ?

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