Why Successful Leaders Fail in a Highly Collaborative Culture

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it: A senior executive with a stellar track record joins a highly collaborative Fortune 100 company. But a few quarters later and without warning, she’s gone.

What happened? Our rising star became the victim of a “corporate culture clash” in which the very things that made her successful in the past—directness, forcefulness, and independent decision making—ended up working against her.

It goes without saying that different organizations require different behaviors from leaders. But highly collaborative companies are particularly demanding. Moreso than in most companies, if you don’t adapt quickly and seamlessly to culture of collaboration, you’re in for trouble. 

Take Jackson for instance. An accomplished General Counsel, he was a widely know personality because of his past successes and extensive media engagement. He had made huge contributions to the growth of several important companies. Jackson was a “heavy hitter.”

When he was hired into a senior position at a large global company, everyone was thrilled. He had interviewed well, and his involvement would enhance the company’s performance and reputation.

Trouble started weeks after he was hired. Complaints emerged from his own functional area that he was too top-down and directive, and that he didn’t listen. Worse, people thought these behaviors were a sign of bad intentions.

None of these concerns bubbled up to his manager, as employees feared retaliation and were aware that he was brought in to shake things up. They assumed their job was to adapt. Even through formal feedback mechanisms, team members were careful not to be too specific at first. His manager, not knowing about the problems, was supportive: “Just keep doing what you are doing!”

Later, Jackson’s peers started talking to each other about his blunt communication style and tendency to make decisions without consulting anyone. He prioritized his upward relationships, and failed to include others in his successes. Several thought he was out for their jobs. They didn’t trust him.

Still, colleagues did not give Jackson direct feedback, as direct feedback was not part of the company culture. And because their trust was low, they worried their feedback might further damage their relationships with him. 

It wasn’t until a stream of people began complaining to HR and decided to leave his team that his manager realized there was a problem. But by that point it was too late—Jackson left the company three months later.

What Jackson didn’t know

Jackson’s problem was mostly about culture. He was a hard-driving, plain-spoken, opinionated leader with a huge focus on fast execution. In his prior jobs, these behaviors aligned with the culture, and were keys to his success. But this time, he needed to do something different.

Here’s what Jackson should have done to succeed:

Prioritize relationships. As I heard one leader say, “Where I worked before, it was work first, relationships second. Here, it’s relationships first, work second.” Prioritizing relationships means spending a surprising amount of time connecting in the early months of the job—getting to know people, asking questions, learning what’s important to them.

Align stakeholders before a decision. “I can’t believe how many stakeholders want to have input into my decisions here,” one executive told me. This is a common refrain in a highly collaborative company. Many decisions require input from multiple parties, both within your organization and cross functionally.

Use collaborative language in groups. Direct people hate this: point out the strengths in another person’s idea or intent before you disagree with them. “Jamie has raised a really important point here. Here’s why I disagree, though….” is better than “Jamie, you’re totally wrong about this.”

Save candid critique for 1-1 meetings. “I don’t trust her, because I’ve seen her throw people under the bus in a meeting,” said one leader whose manager was a Jackson. In fact, Jackson was just being direct. But in a collaborative culture it’s often better to socialize strong disagreement before or after the team meeting. 

Be humble and give credit to others. In the same way that decision-making is shared in a collaborative company, credit is also shared. This doesn’t mean you never acknowledge your own contributions—you need to. But on balance, shine more light on the team.

Be a great listener. Good listening is at the heart of good collaboration. So double down on your listening skills, especially in your first few quarters at the company. See our blog on executive presence and listening for practical advice.

If you’re stepping into a role as a senior executive in a new company, take the issue of culture seriously. Even the most effective, seasoned executive can fail in a new role, simply by failing to adapt. And if you don’t know what culture you’re walking into—ask! Get input from a variety of people. 

One final tip: request feedback early on. You can ask for it yourself, but especially in a high-collaboration culture, an anonymous, interview-based 360 degree feedback process can be exceptionally helpful. You’ll learn about people’s perceptions of you in a much more unfiltered way than what you’ll get by talking with them.

For more on executive onboarding, see This is How to Really Set Your New Execs Up for Success.