In recent years, particularly in the wake of the 2008 recession, leadership experts have begun to highlight collaboration as a critical attribute of successful leaders. They argue that businesses that strategically share and pool perspectives, expertise, resources, and strengths grow. “To lead in this new century, we need authentic leaders who [go beyond top-down leadership] to empower leaders at all levels and collaborate,” asserted Bill George, Harvard Business school professor, in a March 2010 article in the Wall Street Journal.
While perhaps newly recognized as a successful attribute in the business world, collaboration has long been a central tenet of good female leadership practice. Women leaders have been using collaborative leadership styles to draw on talents and knowledge from the widest possible range of sources. Writing in Forbes, international consulting firm partner Sasha Galbraith notes that “all the women entrepreneurs whom I’ve studied embrace teamwork and depend upon it absolutely to run their organizations.” For example, Galbraith highlights how Sandra Peterson, former CEO of Bayer Cropscience, would regularly invite people “from the trenches” into management meetings, both to get “unfiltered information from the people . . . who are actually doing the work” and to ensure that there is adequate female representation in company decision making.
Businesses that have internal structures to foster collaboration and creativity improve their ability to be innovative and to expand. For example, obtaining organization-wide feedback from employees results in “better ideas and better organizational culture” than the practice of holding strictly limited, “closed-door, off-site management meetings." Organizations— such as Facebook and Google—that have moved away from the separate cubicle culture and adopted more open spaces, find that this improves employee satisfaction, maximizes creativity, and fosters innovation—ultimately contributing to a stronger bottom line. Similarly, Cisco moved to open offices and permitted employees to telecommute or work in other places in the building. This has “raised satisfaction while boosting density. Now 140 employees are able to work comfortably where 88 would work in a traditional workspace.”
Studies also indicate that collaborative and effective teams foster greater creativity and improve the rigor of research, and that women are vital assets to creating these effective research teams. Professors of organizational behavior Julia Bear and Anita Woolley posit that “recent evidence strongly suggests that team collaboration is greatly improved by the presence of women in the group, and this effect is primarily explained by benefits to group processes.” Women’s strength as collaborative communicators enhances their ability to resolve conflicts and move ideas forward. Looking specifically at the fields of science and technology, Bear and Woolley argue that “promoting the role of women in the field can have positive practical consequences.” In addition, women’s collaborative tendencies also improve governance. Numerous studies on women in the public sector have found that congresswomen collaborate more often than their male colleagues, and that female appointees work most effectively within a team setting. For example, Laura Kennedy, US ambassador to the Geneva-based Conference on disarmament, points to the notable success of female-led nuclear weapons negotiation teams. She argues that this principally derives from the idea that the women are “more attuned to working on teams.”
Undoubtedly the leadership world as a whole has much to gain from adopting women’s ability to work collaboratively and to promote a horizontal and vertical sharing of resources and wisdom.
Assess and announce. Know your individual strengths and share them with your team. Assess your team’s strengths and share them with the members. Create structures and systems in your workplace that support cooperation and track the results. Collaborate up and down hierarchies, as well as across. Don’t be afraid to search out unlikely bedfellows: strange teams can often create unlikely success. Remember, in an increasingly interconnected world, collaboration is the way of the future.
Online: try strengthsfinder 2.0. First, buy and read the book to get a unique code. Then go online and use the code to take the assessment of over 34 themes to discover your strengths. There are free guides for working with your team, and more detailed reports and resources can be purchased at www.strengthsfinder.com.
Get ’em talking. Regularly invite people from other areas to contribute. Make sure the teams you put together are diverse across a range of issues—from areas of expertise to years in the company—as well as life experiences and demographics. Bring in speakers and share articles of interest with your team, always asking for candid responses. Treat everyone as equals when soliciting feedback.
In Person: Be open to conflict. In fact, embrace it. Your behavior with regard to a respectful, healthy dialogue when conflict arises will not only create a better result, but will set a leadership standard for others to follow.
Be aware of: Losing your leadership in all that collaborating. Don’t diminish your authority by letting conflict get the best of the meeting, losing control of delegating, or taking on too much as part of “sharing the load.”