Agile companies are well-placed to capitalise on economic recovery. But much depends on the ability of business leaders to collaborate across an organisation. How is this goal best achieved?
Collaboration is a more essential skill for business leaders than ever before – but unless it’s a cornerstone of a company’s culture, it can be difficult to introduce. Old habits die hard, and leaders who are more accustomed to being firmly in control often struggle to adopt a team approach to leadership and encourage others to do the same.
Business coach Hilary Lines, co-author of a book on the subject, Touchpoint Leadership, says it’s a vital skill that senior executives must learn. “Over the last decade or so, organisations have become more global and flatter management structures have evolved, so there’s a much greater need for leaders to connect across groups, cultures, sectors and specialisms,” she says.
“After the financial crisis there’s been a lot of talk about agile organisations, and companies becoming leaner and changing direction, but your organisation cannot be agile unless you are really connected. Strong collaborative leadership is about building critical relationships between individuals, teams, partners and customers. The good news is that through coaching, even the most autocratic leader can learn to collaborate.”
Some business leaders have used their personal experience to make the switch from a culture of command and control to one of freedom and trust. Traditional manufacturing is one sector not immediately associated with workplace collaboration, but at engineering specialist Tharsus – since the arrival of chief executive Brian Palmer in 2003 – growth has been underpinned largely by working closely together.
“It is a cultural thing,” says Palmer. “During the 1980s I was among the first graduate intake at Nissan, where, as a young engineer, I was given a huge amount of responsibility. However, when I left and went to work at Ford, the culture could not have been more different, and I found it stifling.”
This influenced Palmer’s own leadership style and Tharsus, which employs around 150 people at Blyth in Northumberland, encourages collaboration between colleagues. It’s driven from the top, but also evident on the shop floor, where workers are asked to suggest and implement practices to improve operations. “This philosophy not only extends to our customers,” says Palmer. “We don’t just build products for them, we work closely to refine design, enhance technology and improve productivity.”
Changing the culture
Some of the bigger challenges lie with leaders who, having done things a certain way for years, find it hard to let go and behave differently, says business coach and Touchpoint Leadership co-author Jacqui Scholes-Rhodes. “True collaborative leadership is about trusting people to act responsibly and freely to do the right thing. If you’ve never done that before, if you’ve always believed that your role is to hold the attention of your staff and control them, that is a huge transition to make,” she says.
Simply replacing the leader can also create cultural shockwaves. “The CEO of a large FTSE organisation I once worked for had absolute control of the company,” says Scholes-Rhodes. “He was eventually replaced by an individual whose style was extremely collaborative yet his approach, which involved asking members of the senior team what they thought the organisation needed to do, left them thinking that he couldn’t lead. Gradually, senior team members did step into this leadership vacuum, but it does illustrate how a cultural change can be hard to implement.”
Nowhere is that difficulty more evident than in the creation of a diverse workplace, particularly when it comes to gender equality. Diversity at senior levels makes for better decision-making. Yet all too often females are promoted to top roles and feel they have to fit in by doing what men do.
Lisa Buckingham, head of diversity at the IoD, says: “Women’s leadership style tends to be more collaborative and designed to bring out the best in a team. Research under way appears to show that male leaders who champion diversity also gain a ‘halo effect’ in their organisations, which is resulting in improved performance.
“As we seek to compete with the dynamic Asian economies, we must nurture and exploit every ounce of creativity available and this is best achieved by collaboration and inclusiveness.”
Growing businesses that were founded on a culture of collaboration face the challenge of maintaining momentum as the organisation expands. A true test of a collaborative leader’s skill is to promote that culture throughout each stage of growth.
Lawrence Jones, chief executive of Manchester-based hosting firm UKFast, founded the business with others, designed the office layout to foster collaboration, and hires only those with a natural tendency to work closely together. The management structure subverts the traditional notion of hierarchy, and each employee is encouraged to take ownership over their part of the business. The working environment is one in which anyone can challenge anyone else.
Jones says: “The office is made up of pods; small teams sitting around open-plan workstations. Clients have a dedicated pod so they can speak to the same people each time they call. The pods include an account manager, two Linux engineers and two Windows engineers. This way, employees from different specialities work collaboratively.”
UKFast recruits people based on a set of core values, including what is referred to as a ‘supportive gene’, so that only those who are naturally inclined towards helping others are brought into the team.
“The benefits of a company-wide culture of collaboration have included higher profits, because our staff are highly motivated, engaged and therefore more productive,” adds Jones.
But change must start at the top, says Lines: “Leaders need to increase their own awareness of themselves, their style, their values, and every aspect of their behaviour that influences the people around them.”
Touchpoint Leadership by Hilary Lines and Jacqui Scholes-Rhodes is published by Kogan Page (£29.99)
Collaborate and thrive: Five top tips for business leaders…
- Lead by example
Collaboration starts at the top, but it’s equally important to spread the message on the shop floor and encourage employees to suggest and implement new practices.
- Build strong relationships
Businesses have become flatter and more agile, making it easier for leaders to connect across different groups. Foster links between individuals, teams, partners and customers.
- Promote diversity
“Women’s leadership style tends to be more collaborative and designed to bring out the best in a team,” says the IoD’s head of diversity, Lisa Buckingham.
- Keep up the teamwork
As a company expands, the true test of a collaborative business leader’s skill is maintaining a collegial workplace through each stage of growth.
- Sharpen your skills
“The good news is that through coaching, even the most autocratic leader can learn to collaborate,” says business coach and author Hilary Lines.