Companies see collaborative leaders as critical in today’s highly networked, partnership-oriented business environments. They foster unity across organizational silos to make decisions quickly, gain cross-functional collaboration, and create cohesive teams. They build trust, providing the psychological safety necessary for innovation.
Through my in-depth research and behavioral analysis of highly successful collaborative leaders over the last 20 years, I have identified key characteristics that those leaders have in common. My most recent research of men who lead collaboratively revealed that their inclusive style makes them naturals at developing others.
My findings show there are four key strategies that collaborative leaders use to facilitate the professional growth of others, all of which are on-the-job experiential learning opportunities.
Four Strategies that Collaborative Leaders Use
- Create a nurturing environment
Charles, who turned around a struggling educational services organization, told me about giving his executive assistant, Lorraine, an opportunity to impress the board. He said, “ I was going to open a board meeting with a presentation about a book which showed how to tap into new market spaces.”
When Charles saw that Lorraine had bought a copy of the book and was reading it “along with him,” he decided to ask her to do the presentation. He explained to me that he would have loved to present the material–it was impressive stuff and it would make him look good–but this was a great opportunity for his assistant to shine.
Although giving Lorraine visibility meant stepping out of the spotlight himself, it was worth it to him. He took pride in Lorraine’s successful presentation. Charles demonstrated a key way that collaborative leaders develop others. He side-stepped his ego to offer a growth opportunity to someone else.
- Give them a safe space to fail
Charles told me another story, one about his COO who he is deliberately developing for his job. “The only way she’s going to learn is if I allow space for her to make her own decisions. If she fails, I say, ‘All right, let’s move on. What did we learn from that? How do you pivot?’”
Similarly, Nick, general counsel of a public transportation company, talked about stepping back to let one of his direct reports learn. “I have to park my ego. I have to bite my tongue sometimes when I know what they’re doing is not quite the right way to go. I have to let them figure a lot out for themselves because that’s how I learned.”
Collaborative leaders don’t swoop in and take over when a problem occurs; they let people learn from their mistakes and learn how to work themselves out of a difficult problem.
- Leverage strengths and target development needs
Collaborative leaders seem to define a successful leader more broadly and consider other behaviors either equally or more important than technical skills or experience in areas directly related to the work. They consider that certain experiences are transferable and thus would substitute for direct skills in that industry or functional area. They might also consider that to prepare a person for a higher-level role they need a different experience than rounds out their portfolio.
Rafael, CEO of a biological services organization, for development purposes, expanded the senior leadership team to include two individuals who did not report directly to him but to one of his direct reports. This gave the individuals access to participate in discussions, debates, and decision-making at that top level, building their critical thinking, confidence, and influence.
When Dane, a senior vice president in technology services, sponsored Beth, his direct report, he focused on increasing her visibility with his peers across the company and helping her build connections. When I asked how he facilitated that, he said, “There were specific people that I asked her to put on her list to reach out to. Behind the scenes, I talked with the more senior people. There were a couple of senior women, in particular, I talked with saying, ‘I can’t give her the perspective you can give her. I can give her a white male over-50 perspective, but I can guarantee you that my experience has been different than yours.’”
- Give them learning assignments
Some of the collaborative male leaders I interviewed told me about books or articles that inspired them and were great lessons in leadership. These books were not necessarily in the business section either; they told tales of struggle and ultimate success outside the professional setting.
One such book was The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Nick explained why he loved this book and shared it with his leadership team and facilitated discussions about it. He said, “These kids were socially and economically diverse; so it was a story about how the coach brought these different beliefs together and how they became one cohesive unit and beat the odds. I related it to here and I said, ‘We cannot be successful if we’re not rowing in the same direction, all of us at the same time.’ And I added, ‘I see some of you using the paddles and hitting each other.’”
Rafael shared a Stanford Business School article with his new team when he first came in as CEO: “DaVita: A Community First, A Company Second,” a case study about creating a collaborative culture. He said, “DaVita had undergone a similar transformation to what we were going through here. I gave my team an exercise to read the case study and then write me a report on how they felt they would fit into something similar, and how they would take steps to grow and evolve with a culture like that.” The assignment actually initiated the evolution of the company’s own culture change, one that Rafael saw as crucial to its survival.
Collaborative leaders take great pride in developing others. They have a keen eye for emerging talent. With their empathy and listening, they pick up on characteristics and strengths in others that may be missed by their peers. They give people a chance to “take the wheel,” and analyze failures and successes. They provide valuable learning assignments. They perpetuate a healthy collaborative culture.