How to be a Collaborative Leader

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Published 7/3/2015

In order to lead effectively in an increasingly VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) business environment, today’s leaders need to develop the ability to build collaborative relationships.

The ability to build coalitions and work collaboratively becomes even more important as a leader takes on more and more responsibility and the organization grows. Collaboration is no longer a “nice to do” – it’s a leadership requirement needed to get results and advance in any organization.

Here are ten ways for a leader to build more collaborative work relationships:

1. Let go of being the expert and having all the answers. The reality is, no single leader can possibly have all of the answers. Complex business decisions require the collective input of many stakeholders. Clinging to the belief that you need to have all of the answers leads to two negative outcomes: burnout and a perception of arrogance from others. Let go of the need to be “right” and “prepared,” and allow yourself to be influenced by the opinions of others.

2. Learn to listen. In order to be open to and consider the opinions of others, you need to listen. See “How to Become a Better Listener” for more on how to improve your listening skills. Active listening is a skill that involves focus, energy, and commitment.

3. Learn to lead sideways, not just up and down. Leading sideways means being a leader – and sometimes follower – amongst your peers.

It means paying attention to what’s important to your peers, and looking for ways to help them achieve their goals. Collaboration isn’t just about political horse-trading (you wash my hands, and I’ll wash yours) – it’s about looking for ways to combine resources and talents to achieve extraordinary results for the organization.

4. Build personal relationships. When you take the time to get to know someone personally, it becomes easier to build trust, resolve conflicts, and collaborate. Regular coffee, lunch, or after-hour informal get-togethers will help lay the foundation for collaboration. Teambuilding events and activities can help build relationships in a group or team by allowing everyone a chance to get to know one another better.

5. Establish trust. See “12 Ways for Leaders to Build a Solid Foundation of Trust with Their Employees.” Most, if not all of the tips (don’t overcommit, keep confidences, etc.) would also apply to peers, customers, vendors, and other stakeholders in which collaboration is required.

6. Keep your commitments. When you walk out of a meeting, or end a phone call, and you say you’re going to do something, keep your commitments! Collaboration is hard work, and requires extra effort to not only do your own work, but to provide information and resources to somebody else so they can do their work. Missing deadlines and ignoring the concerns of others is a surefire way to erode trust and respect.

7. Embrace diversity. It’s easy to collaborate with people who are “PLUs” (people like us).

It gets messy when we try to solve problems and make decisions with “PNLUs” (people not like us) However, when you get people with different perspectives together to solve a problem, you’re more likely to come up with bolder, more creative solutions.

8. Learn the art and skill of asking questions. Asking, instead of telling (see number one) is a great way to involve others. Use these four magic words to encourage collaboration: “What do you think?”

For more great questions for leaders to ask, see “70 Awesome Coaching Questions Using the GROW Model.”

9. Learn to resolve conflict. Collaboration can be messy and conflict is inevitable. If it’s not, you’re probably not really collaborating. See “Conflict Resolution for Small Groups.”

10. Learn how to make consensus decisions. Involving others in the decision making process can harness the collective wisdom of talented individuals, and gain critical buy-in through ownership of the decision, speeding up implementation.

See “A Six-Step Consensus Decision Making Framework.”

Follow these ten tips and you’ll become known as a collaborative leader – a leader that helps to produce extraordinary results by leveraging the collective talent of the entire enterprise.