How to deliver collaborative leadership

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Bruce Nixon looks at how leadership teams can ensure change within organisations can be achieved effectively, through both working to involve staff in the process and making relevant changes to leadership behaviour.

“No top team can possibly understand the complexity and unpredictability of what needs to be done through the emergent workings of the collective intelligence of their organisation”.

I listen to a lot of people in a wide diversity of organisations. What I hear consistently is criticism of how leadership brings about change. People do whinge and blame – a way of avoiding responsibility. However, criticism needs to be taken seriously. Common criticisms are: Deciding strategic changes without involving people on the ground; thinking short term; putting profit and share price ahead of long term sustainability; subjecting people to exhausting waves of initiatives, rather than seeing through a flexible strategy and giving it time to work; not communicating the need for change and regularly reporting progress; holding back information that is embarrassing ,i.e. not treating people as adults when the changes appear not to be working; not admitting mistakes or not knowing what to do; not taking people into their confidence; not giving people the freedom to innovate; not walking the talk – saying one thing and doing another; above all, not listening and involving people in deciding changes and how to implement them.

One charismatic and innovative chief executive I think of nearly ruined a good company. He did not listen to his senior colleagues. He had to go. But by then, the damage was done to the company and his reputation because of a personal flaw.

Part of the problem is the failure to create a culture in which people say what they really think, are fully valued, thrive and give their best. People who dare often get fired but ultimately the company pays the price for lack of integrity – many examples come to light.

Deficiencies like these are obvious to people working in an organisation. You may not need a management consultant – just ask your people!

Top leaders need clarity about their role. Part of the role is providing an inspiring vision of a desired future. But equally important, and less often done, is enabling people in organisation to bring about the emergent transformation that is essential in the 21st Century world. No top team can possibly understand the complexity and unpredictability of what needs to be done through the emergent workings of the collective intelligence of their organisation. Some leaders understand this instinctively. Others need to absorb the best thinking about how organisations transform and adapt their leadership behaviour to encourages this.

Two wise Americans, Meg Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers, say: “In our experience, enormous struggles with implementation are created every time we deliver changes to the organisation rather than figuring out how to involve people in their creation.”

Basically, leaders need to: provide clarity about values, purpose and vision – an inspiring corporate ideology which is understood by the whole organisation and has its support; involve everyone in creating and implementing an emerging strategy to fulfil that vision; and create a culture that brings out spirit in the organisation and everyone’s energy and creativity.

One practical step may be a top team retreat. Work together to co-create your agreed purpose, values, vision and strategy. Then work on your process for involving the whole organisation and the implications for your own leadership behaviour. For most leaders the key issue is their own values, beliefs and behaviour. Beforehand, ask a lot questions in your organisation, invite feedback and hope that people are not too intimidated to tell you their truth - and listen.

Here is an agenda for a retreat:

  1. Global forces: What is going on in our environment, affecting us or likely to? What are the key trends? Think divergently, boldly and not just in narrow business terms. Get someone to challenge you. Then, what are the big issues facing us? See them as opportunities.
  2. Rigorously review the current state: How well are we responding to that environment? SWOT. The health and sustainability of our organisation? Enough diversity for a healthy organisation? Do we encourage honesty and criticism? Do we take development seriously? What about spirit? What are our key issues?
  3. Our purpose & values: Inspiring corporate mission; our unique difference.
  4. Our vision of a desirable future: For the world – organisations thrive by changing it; our organisation; ourselves; the culture we need.
  5. Strategy: To bring about the vision: how we will involve people, engage their hearts and collective intelligence in creating change - our unique leadership role.
  6. Key issues: Out there; in our team; above all in ourselves – lets be really honest – how do we need to transform ourselves and our behaviour? Let’s get and give honest feedback.
  7. Implementation and support: How are we going sustain and review this strategy? How will we involve people in the creation of these changes? Who are the key stakeholders we need to engage? What challenge and support do we need to provide ourselves?

Having done this, take your strategy to a large group of people representing the whole system of your organisation and its stakeholders. Get them to say what they like about it; where you need to think again; revise it accordingly. Then get the whole room taking responsibility for implementing it and making plans to do so.

Exciting work!

Bruce Nixon is the author of Global Forces and Making a Difference, published by Management Books 2000. This article was first published in EuroBusiness, June 2003.

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