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Are you a Collaborative Leader?

Posted By APSO, Tuesday, 10 June 2014
Updated: Friday, 16 May 2014

Are you a collaborative leader?

Extracts from Harvard Business Review, Herminia Ibarra & Morten T. Hansen (Aug 2011)


Business people today are working more collaboratively than ever before, not just inside companies but also with suppliers, customers, governments and universities. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, video conferencing and a host of other technologies have put connectivity on steroids and enabled new forms of collaboration that would have been impossible a short while ago.


Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organisational behaviour and Morten T. Hansen, a management professor at Berkley, joined forces to unpack what it means to be a collaborative leader and produced a detailed paper for the Harvard Business Review. This article seeks to highlight some of their key findings.


After thorough research the professors determined that collaborative leaders all share strong skills in four areas:


1.   Playing the role of connector;

2.   Attracting diverse talent;

3.   Modelling collaboration at the top; and

4.   Showing a strong hand to keep teams from getting mired in debate


Play Global Connector


In his best-selling book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell used the term “connector” to describe individuals who have many ties to different social worlds. It’s not the number of people they know that makes connectors significant, however; it’s their ability to link people, ideas and resources that wouldn’t normally bump into one another. In business, connectors are facilitators of collaboration.


Connectors are not limited to leaders in roles such as President or CEO as many individuals may provide the bridge between their organisation and the outside world today. To connect their organisations to the wider world, collaborative leaders develop contacts not only in the typical areas – local clubs, industry associations, and customer-supplier relations – but beyond them. Networking in adjacent industries, innovation hot spots or emerging economies or with people of different educational or ethnic backgrounds, helps open their eyes to new business opportunities and partners.


Engage Talent at the Periphery


Research has consistently shown that diverse teams produce better results, provided that they are well led. The ability to bring together people from different backgrounds, disciplines, cultures and generations and leverage all they have to offer, therefore, is a must-have for leaders. Yet many companies spend inordinate amounts of time, money, and energy attracting talented employees only to subject them to induction processes that seek to homogenise them and kill diversity and creativity.


Research on creative industries shows that collaborations that are most successful (whether in terms of patent citation, critical acclaim, or financial return) include both experienced people and newcomers and bring together people who haven’t worked together before. Leaders need to make a concerted effort to promote this mix: Left to their own devices, people will choose to collaborate with others they know well or who have a similar background. Collaborative leaders ensure that their teams stay fresh via periodic infusions of new players.

Collaborate at the Top First

It’s not enough for leaders to spot collaborative opportunities and attract the best talent to them. They must also set the tone by being good collaborators themselves. All too often, efforts to collaborate in the middle are sabotaged by political games and turf battles higher up in the organisation.


Part of the problem is that many leadership teams are composed as individual divisional leaders and don’t operate as teams. Each member is solely responsible for his or her own region, function, product or service without much incentive for aligning the organisation as an inherent whole.


If leaders are to encourage more innovation through partnerships across sectors and with suppliers, customers and consumers, they need to stop relying heavily on short-term performance indicators. According to the psychologist Carol Dweck, people are driven to do tasks by either performance or learning goals. When performance goals dominate an environment, people are motivated to show others that they have a valued attribute, such as intelligence or leadership. When learning goals dominate, they are motivated to develop the attribute. Performance goals, she finds, induce people to favour tasks that will make them look good over tasks that will help them learn. A shift towards learning goals will make managers more open to exploring opportunities to acquire knowledge from others.


Depoliticising senior management so that executives are rewarded for collaboration rather than promotion of individual agendas is an absolute essential.


Show a Strong Hand


Once leaders start getting employees to collaborate, they face a different problem: overdoing it. Too often people will try to collaborate on everything and wind up in endless meetings, debating ideas and struggling to find consensus. They can’t reach a decision and execute quickly. Collaboration becomes not the oil greasing the wheel but rather the sand grinding it to a halt.


Effective collaborative leaders assume a strong role in directing teams. They maintain agility by forming and disbanding teams as opportunities come and go – in much the same way that Hollywood producers, directors, actors, writers and technicians establish teams for the life of a movie project. Collaborative efforts are highly fluid and not confined to company silos.


Effective leaders also assign clear decision rights and responsibilities, so that at the appropriate point someone can end the discussion and make a final decision.


Loosening Control without Losing Control


In the old world of silos and solo players, leaders had access to everything they needed under one roof, and a command-and-control style served them well. But things have changed: The world has become much more interconnected, and if executives don’t know how to tap into the power of those connections, they’ll be left behind.


Leaders today must be able to harness ideas, people, and resources from across boundaries of all kinds. That requires reinventing their talent strategies and building strong connections both inside and outside their organisations. To get all the disparate players to work together effectively, they also need to know when to wield their influence rather than authority to move things forward, and when to halt unproductive discussions, squash politicking, and make final calls.

Differences in convictions, cultural values, and operating norms inevitably add complexity to collaborative efforts. But they also make them richer, more innovative, and more valuable. Getting value is at the heart of collaborative leadership.



Collaboration does not equal Consensus


Collaborative leadership is the capacity to engage people and groups outside one’s formal control and inspire them to work towards a common goal – despite differences in convictions, values, and operating norms.


Most people understand intuitively that collaborative leadership is the opposite of the old command-and-control model, but the differences with consensus-based approaches are more nuanced. Below are some helpful distinctions between the three leadership styles.



Comparing Three Styles of Leadership



Command and Control



Organisational structure


Matrix/Smaller Group

Dispersed, cross-organisational network

Who has the relevant information?

Senior management

Formally designated members/representatives of the relevant disciplines

Employees at all levels and locations and variety of external stakeholders

Who has the authority to make final decisions?

The people at the top of the organisation with clear authority

All parties have equal authority

The people leading collaborations have clear authority

What is the basis for accountability and control?

Financial results against business plan

Many performance indicators, by function or geography

Performance on achieving shared goals

Where does it work best?

Works well within a defined hierarchy; works poorly for complex organisations and when innovations is important

Works well in small teams; works poorly when speed/execution is important

Works well for diverse groups and cross-unit and cross-company work, and when innovation and creativity are critical


Tags:  APSO  APSOgram  attract talent  collaborate  collaborative styles  command and control  connector role  consensus  control  strong hand  talent engagement 

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