Transcript of How to Optimize Collaboration on Your Leadership Team

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So, let's get started. My name is Jack McGuinness, Managing Partner at Relationship Impact, where our sole focus is on working with executive teams and leadership teams of companies, big and small, to help them work more effectively together, both structurally and relationally.

So, today's topic is an important one because what we find is that collaboration is an often misused term that, if not managed well, can lead to some challenges on leadership teams and elsewhere. So, let's talk first about what's the definition. What's the definition of collaboration, is the action of working with someone to produce or create something, right? So, that's a very broad definition or action, working with someone to produce or create something.

So, what we often see as a challenge is that collaboration, we often will ask the teams we're working with, what are some characteristics of great leadership teams? One of the things that will come up is collaboration, right? Great teams are collaborative. No question about it, but what we often find is that leadership teams struggle with finding a good balance between how to keep their autonomy and how to collaborate well. Some team members will view collaboration as something that's, some time, maybe a necessary evil or even worse than that, it sort of gets in the way of us doing our job effectively, while others might see collaboration as a vehicle for ensuring that everyone's voice is heard all the time on everything.

So, those are obviously two extremes, but the extremes are sometimes informative, right? If you have a team of folks where some people are just craving their autonomy and just wanting to get stuff done and view even team meetings or the team construct is getting in the way of that, that's a challenge on the one end, but the other end is if you have a team that is where folks or even some folks on the team are just desperate to put their two cents into every conversation even if not necessary, then that can be ineffective as well. So, those are the sort of the polar opposites and some of the challenges we see in some of the teams we work on.

Collaboration struggles. We find there's three main collaboration struggles. There's probably others, but these are the ones that we see a lot in the work that we do. Executive autonomy is one of them. What we mean by that is most executives rise the ranks in the organization because of some type of expertise that they have. They feel like they're good at the work that they do, and they derive a lot of their satisfaction and their self-worth almost from how well they do that, and so, sometimes, people crave autonomy. From our perspective, autonomy can really help drive more effective collaboration, which we'll talk about in a second, but autonomy, the need for autonomy can sometimes get in the way of teams being as collaborative as they should be or to help strike that good balance.

Organizational pace and complexity, no question that this can sometimes get in the way of a team's ability to collaborate as well as they should because things are just coming fast, there's a lot of challenges that they're dealing with, and they just need to go forth and execute rather than spending a lot of time debating, sharing information, that type of thing.

The next one is faulty team assumptions. What we mean by that is some executives believe that collaboration means that everyone gets to have their voice heard on all issues. Working with a new team right now to a trade association, a fairly big trade association that has, I think a nine-person executive team, and there is clearly on this team, there are a couple folks that really feel like if they don't have their voice heard on every topic, not just their voice but everyone's voice should be heard on every topic, otherwise, they're not collaborating well. From our perspective, that's not necessary for collaboration to be as effective as it can be. So, autonomy, pace and some faulty assumption around overdoing collaboration and having to reach a set of consensus on every issue. So, these are some of the struggles we see our clients dealing with as it relates to optimizing collaboration.

So, let's talk a little bit about autonomy and collaboration. There's a great study done by a tech company Slack called Good Collaboration, Bad Collaboration. By the way, if you click on this image when you get these slides, you'll be able to see the whole study, but one of the interesting quote that came out of this is that autonomy can actually help drive effective collaboration as it tends to yield new ideas, which many times require perspectives from other people, debate, challenge, and experimenting your thoughts and ideas with other people. So, there is a strong relationship between a person's need for autonomy and effective collaboration.

Diligence and collaboration, let's talk a little bit about that. So, what we mean by that ... Again, that was a study, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Again, click on this, and you'll see a very cool study from some folks at Stanford that says that people working collaboratives or more diligent are stuck at their task 64% longer than those working individually in the same task. So, this concept of effective collaboration can be, according to this study, can be helpful in terms of diligence.

Let's talk a little bit about what good collaboration looks like. Again, I stole this directly from this study by Slack, Good Collaboration, Bad Collaboration. Here's some of the data from that study for what makes good team collaboration. I can communicate with my colleagues easily. Responsibilities are clear on who is doing what. I can trust colleagues to do good work. Everyone agrees on the goal or outcome. We're going to talk more about that in a second because we believe that that is an important aspect of optimization of collaboration. I get along well with my colleagues on a personal level.

These are some of the things that ... So, really, really openness to communicating, a clarity about who's doing what, a sense of trust in people's competence, a sense of purpose and then a general feeling of affinity for the people that we work with, and so, those are elements of good collaboration. So, let's talk a little bit about what can be done to optimize collaboration when it's out of whack, when you have a team that may have pockets of people working well together, but you have others that are very much ... think the team construct is unnecessary, think having to collaborate or talk with or share information with their colleagues is sort of just holding them back from getting the job done to, on the other side, you've got a team, several folks on the team maybe think that they and their colleagues should have to have their point of view heard at all costs.

From our perspective, either side of that bound, to get a team of people that want to over collaborate or team of people that are overly autonomous leads to some challenges with how effective you are at collaborating. From our perspective, teams should only collaborate on those things that they should be working on together, and they shouldn't be collaborating on things that they don't need to be working on together. It doesn't mean they can't ask for input, ask for advice, but really important that the number one step in how to optimize collaboration is for a team, an executive team, a leadership team to really be clear on its purpose and what from that purpose is driving the need for them to actually have to work together and what areas they shouldn't have to work together.

From definition of purpose comes, how do we integrate? We have several roles on our executive team. We understand what this purpose is. How should we be integrating to accomplish that purpose? Sometimes, we have to integrate with all eight or nine people on the team. Sometimes, it's two or three. Sometimes, we don't. We just go forth and execute our departmental roles, and we don't need to integrate. Then, oftentimes, we find that having a set of principles for, not so much just for how we collaborate, for how the team behaves together can be helpful in terms of how we collaborate with. We'll get more into that in a second.

Our premise is that to go beyond the basic principles of good collaborations such as ... Obviously, in order to collaborate well, there has to be a sense of curiosity, there has to be some listening, there has to be some sharing information, there has to be a good give and take or exchange of ideas, but go beyond that. A team needs to take a few important steps, and these are those steps. Clarify purpose. Find how we integrate or find how to integrate, and agree to a set of operating principles so that it's clear on what we should be collaborating on and what we shouldn't. I hope that that construct helps for folks.

So, let's talk a little bit about clarifying purpose. If you've listened to any of our other webinars, you've heard us talk about leadership team purpose quite a bit, and I'll just reiterate what we mean by that. Leadership team purpose should address the priority issues that require the teams cross boundary expertise, things like strategic imperatives that cut across the organization, allocation of resources. How do we get more operationally efficient? Those are some examples. By default, a meaningful purpose will help a team understand when it's important to collaborate and when it's not.

So, I'll give you a couple examples of what we're talking about for a customer by leadership team purpose. Reduce customer concentration risk is one. This is drawn from a recent client. Too much customer concentration risk. They had three lines of business, and to address that customer concentration risk, each line of business went out to the market with their own approach to dealing with that risk, and they started tripping each over in market. So, the essence behind this team's purpose was, how do we reduce customer concentration risk? We go to market with a common approach, right? Their focus for nine to 12 months was, how do we build a common go-to-market strategy that helps us reduce our customer concentration risk? All the work they did together across lines of business and their functional areas were focused on, how do we attack that risk question?

It didn't mean they weren't doing their day-to-day work in executing the lines of business or their financial responsibilities or their research allocation responsibilities, but what it did mean is that they came together as a leadership team with a strong purpose on coming up with a common go-to-market strategy. That informed how they needed to integrate. It informed when they needed to collaborate, and often, very importantly, when they didn't need to collaborate.

So, classic example of that is you have a line of business that is executing on ... has a delivery strategy, and they're just going forth and executing on that and reporting back to their team but not a lot of discussion about ... or a lot of collaboration was needed in terms of how we deliver in one line of business versus another. Certainly, there's times when we're learning from each other and such, but most of their time was focused on collectively working together on how do we drive a common go-to-market strategy.

Another example is working with a client right now who is growing like crazy. Their growth got out ahead of them a little bit, and their infrastructure wasn't necessarily in shape to support it both from a systems and a process perspective, so, for a nine-month to 12-month period of time, they're in the midst of it right now, they're building the process. They're putting in some new technology that is helping shore up their infrastructure to get out in front of their growth. A lot of their time is spent on, how do we work together across departments from a process perspective? How do we put the right systems in place to make sure that our operations are shored up so that we can grow effectively? So, really important construct in terms of leadership team collaboration, if there's strong purpose, there's a strong sense of what we should be working on together, then it really informs when and how we should be collaborating.

Related to that, define integration. Taking time for team members to ... I have highlighted here the words discuss and debate because I think that's the most important part of this. It's not so much the piece of paper or the document that's created in terms of how we should be integrating as an executive team, but it's the discussion and debate, so that there's a clear understanding of what each other's roles are and what the gaps are, what the potential gray areas are, and what potential areas people are duplicating effort are, again, to achieve that purpose. So, really important that there's a good discussion and debate around what our roles are, how we need to integrate to achieve that team purpose.

Below is just a few questions that you might ask that will help a team figure out how to integrate well. Who's going to lead each priority area? What specific contributions will each team member make or not? Maybe in some priority areas, there won't be a need for the CFO to contribute, for example. Is it necessary for all team members ... Related to this former question, is it necessarily for all team members to be involved in all aspects of execution? Which roles have the greatest interdependencies?

These are conversations that we often find that teams don't have. It leads to some frustration around unintentional duplication of effort and assumption that someone else or some other department was going to be handling this versus our department. Some potential ambiguities around, well, it's not really clear who should be handling this versus that. So, if you don't have these conversations, it's hard to identify what those gaps are. Finding purpose, finding how we integrate, and then finally, this doesn't have to be a big deal, but if a team doesn't collaborate well, it's really important to identify what's getting in the way of folks not collaborating as well as they should and to identify what are a couple of principles that we're going to identify that might help us collaborate more effectively.

So, just a few examples of leadership team operating principles that we've seen. We'll communicate articulately, meaning it'll be clear for what we're saying directly and respectfully. We'll actively listen to each other. We'll receive feedback maturely. For example, if someone says, "In terms of our purpose, in terms of how we discussed how we're going to integrate to achieve that purpose, it seems like we're trying to drive for consensus on this issue when it really doesn't fall within the purview of the team to be making a decision on this. It's department X, right? So, we don't really need to be debating this."

That kind of feedback is really important, and maturely is a keyword, is how do we receive that feedback well? We'll operate with a team first mantra, meaning we're out for the good of the organization versus just my individual department, for example. Those are some ideas, some potential principles that can help a team figure out how to collaborate as effectively as they could, they should be.

What we see is over time, through the debate and through the discussion that teams have, they develop a better sense, a more intrinsic or natural sense for when they need to collaborate and when it's in the best interest of the team to work independently. They're not afraid to tell each other that like, "This is something that my department has our hands wrapped around. I think we're good. If you want to give like your two cents, let's do that. We can schedule some time for you to get together and give me your cents, but let's not take up our time in our executive team meetings to deal with that because that's a functional issue. Let's focus back on what we're supposed to be doing together as a team."

This was a short webinar. Our main premise here is that collaboration is really important for executive teams, but optimizing how a team collaborates is really, really important, meaning focusing on what a team should be talking about together and what each functional or business unit lead should just be executing on independently. Really important. The only way we know of helping teams to move towards that optimal level of collaboration is to help them have productive discussions about what their purpose is, how they need to integrate, and how they're going to behave together to integrate well on a purpose.

I hope that was helpful for you today. It's a fairly simple construct. It's one that we see teams get themselves in trouble on either on one end of the spectrum or the other on there's too many autonomous people in a room, and people don't really want to talk to each other even when they should be. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, you have folks that want to collaborate and put their two cents into everything when they don't need to have their two cents to everything. So, the only way we needed to do that, know how to get folks to do that, is to force them, force the conversations around what should we be working on together and what shouldn't we.