Collaborative leadership begins with you

Collaboration: having been bandied about the boardroom for decades, it nonetheless remains an enigmatic concept in business today. Is it merely one of those hackneyed buzzwords that are so heavily frowned upon on CVs and company mission statements, or rather an incredibly relevant concept that applies to the modern organisation?

Businesses of all size and shape today will do well to ensure collaboration is still a major priority – and the onus, no doubt, falls on the organisation’s leader. This seems to hold true across the world, at least according to an extensive global study led by CEO and author John Gerzema.

In the study, researchers polled 64,000 individuals across 13 countries on the qualities they believed led to successful leaders and businesses. One of the most prominent insights garnered in the study was that most people wanted their leaders to be more collaborative, with this trait ranking among the highest, along the likes of flexibility and selflessness.

In fact, an overwhelming 84 per cent believed that greater collaboration and sharing of credit are essential to a successful modern career. So what does this mean for those sitting at the top of businesses today?

It means it’s time to take collaborative leadership seriously, if you aren’t doing so already.

What does it really mean to be a collaborative leader?

The importance of collaboration aside, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what it means and entails, especially in a leadership context.

It’s worth having a look around to see how different people define collaborative leadership. According to an infographic from the Collaborative Lead Training Co., the workplace is evolving towards a more collaborative future and thus redefining leadership.

The infographic lays out eight key differences between traditional leadership and collaborative leadership. Among these are the notions that in contrast with the traditional model, collaborative leadership:

  • Believes power is greatest in a collective team, rather than coming from a position of authority
  • Openly shares information and knowledge, rather than imposing ownership on it
  • Elicits suggestions and ideas from across the team – all the time
  • Empowers the team with immediate time and resources, rather than providing these only when necessary

As can be seen from the infographic’s suggestions, a collaborative leader is one who embraces a ‘flatter’ organisational structure, sharing authority and accountability around the team instead of hoarding it themselves.

Additionally, in an April 17 2013 HRZone article, leadership consultants David Archer and Alex Cameron said there are three essential skills and three essential attitudes behind a collaborative leader. Even if a leader possesses the three skills, they will not be able to be fully collaborative if they don’t have the attitudes to match.

According to Archer and Cameron, the three vital skills for collaborative leadership are mediation, influencing and engaging others. Collaborative leaders, they say, are adept at addressing and resolving conflicts the moment they arise. In addition, they are skilled at influencing peers based on the organisation’s culture – which is a critical skill to have if they hope to share control and leadership.

Lastly, engagement and relationship building are essential qualities for a collaborative leader, and this involves clear communication.

So, what are the attitudes that accompany these crucial skills? Archer and Cameron outline agility, patience and empathy as the mindsets that leaders should adopt if they wish to be collaborative.

It is clear that there are some common threads that unite the schools of thought around collaborative leadership. Leaders attempting to follow this model should place emphasis on the team rather than the individual, promote a flat and open company structure and empower their employees. This should be backed up with quick-thinking and the ability to take others’ points of view.

Why it pays to be collaborative

But why is collaborative leadership so important? Especially in the modern business world, where technology is exponentially growing in prevalence and reshaping traditional interpersonal communication, adopting a collaborative culture is essential.

This was pointed out by Carol Kinsey Goman in a February 13 2014 Forbes article. Ms Goman stresses that the dreaded silo mentality is holding back countless organisations today, and not sharing information around the company can essentially “kill” it.

As a recent study by Interaction Associates suggests, not embracing collaborative leadership can also hurt your company’s bottom line. The group conducted a study on what impacts the confluence of leadership, collaboration and trust can have on a business – including its financial performance.

In the study, Interaction Associates ranked more than 150 companies based on how well they embodied these three components. It found that those considered strong across the three traits demonstrated superior financial results – for example, their P/E ratios were 28.5 per cent higher on average for those classed as weak.

Collaboration is not just a vague ideal that companies should aim for – it is a very real concept with tangible results, and it’s time to embed this into your leadership today.

Identifying opportunities in the Asian Century

Asia has experienced rapid growth in the 21st century, which has driven a need for goods and services as its burgeoning middle class begins to expand.

Australia is well placed to take advantage of this growth. In fact, the country has already enjoyed a steep rise in demand for its natural resources over the last decade, helping to strengthen the mining sector.

However, as the resources boom begins to taper off, Australian companies must shift their efforts in order to continue benefiting from the multitude of opportunities available in Asia.

A 2012 whitepaper by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) noted that while the majority of Australia’s trade is with Asia, the country only spends 6 per cent of its overseas direct investment in the region.

PwC said this figure is far too low for businesses to take full advantage of potential growth opportunities.

Similarly, a Deloitte report last month urged organisations to become ‘first movers’ rather than ‘fast followers’ when it comes to commercial deals abroad. This means firms must establish themselves as innovators rather than settling for second best.

Selwyn D’Souza, lead strategy partner at Deloitte, said: “Strengthening our already strong relationships with the new global giants such as China and India will become more important than ever as we seek to establish a stronger presence in their markets and their companies continue to enter ours.”

Opportunities in Asia

According to Deloitte, a billion people are expected to enter the middle-class globally within the next 20 years – and a significant proportion will be in Asia.

The OECD estimates 66 per cent of middle-class people will be Asian by 2030, compared with just 28 per cent in 2009.

This increase in consumption provides opportunities to Australian companies across a wide range of sectors, particularly financial services, telecommunications and retail.

Businesses that seek cross-sectoral collaboration between other companies, governments and non-profit organisations are likely to perform better, as this creates a greater social impact.

“It will be the forward-looking Australian businesses that proactively take opportunities to innovate and serve the needs of low-income consumers in the Asia-Pacific region which will enjoy the benefits of increased market share, profit growth and brand differentiation,” Ms D’Souza stated.

However, PwC said organisations must be willing to invest in Asia to have the best chance of gaining market share and forging ongoing relationships with businesses in the region.

Australian CEOs will also require a keen understanding of the many different Asian cultures in the region. The conflict between Western and Eastern values could be a stumbling block unless enterprises are adequately prepared.

Building an Asian presence

Despite the challenges businesses will face growing market share in Asia, the positive outcomes and expansion opportunities are significant.

Here are some strategies that PwC noted could help your company make the transition a little easier.

Invest in human capital: Recruiting or promoting people with extensive Asia expertise is vital.

Not only will this help your business to better understand the marketplace, it also facilitates relationships with Asian firms, which are typically built in person rather than over long distances.

Assess market potential: Review your existing growth strategy through an Asian perspective and identify the best opportunities for your particular business.

Isolate risks, re-evaluate existing brands and products, and strengthen any existing ties you may have in Asia.

Select appropriate market entry options: Entering new international markets can be a challenge, so consider different investment vehicles.

Whether you opt for a joint venture, export-only model, licensing arrangement or other operating structure will depend on your specific commercial objectives.

What next?

Given that the resources sector is already beginning to slow in Australia, the need to build further economic drivers in other sectors becomes more apparent.

Organisations that fail to cater to growing Asian demand could find themselves struggling to succeed against more forward-thinking competitors.

However, CEOs must move fast. These changes are already underway and building for the future must begin as soon as possible, particularly when it comes to attracting and retaining the right staff to excel in new market conditions.

“While many organisations understand the need to recruit resources with the necessary skill set, the demand for this key talent far outweighs supply,” PwC stated.

“It is imperative that companies start planning now how to position their organisations and their people for the Asian Century.”