How to Succeed in a Collaborative Company

A few years ago I published a series on How to Be a More Diplomatic Executive. I realize now that the series is not only about being diplomatic–it’s about collaboration. So here it is, edited and with that focus.

I’m often asked to help leaders become more collaborative. Sometimes they are great at execution or great technically, but their blunt communication has damaged key relationships.  Other times, they are pushing aggressively for their own organization without much awareness or concern for the success of their peers.  Sometimes it’s a matter of style–they may have grown up in a culture that values directness or forcefulness. 

Many companies value execution or expertise over collaboration per se: Apple, Oracle, Netflix and Visa for example. Others, (think: Google) have collaboration as a deep, core value. If you’ve recently taken a leadership role at a collaborative company, your ability to pivot your style will be crucial not just to your success, but to your very survival (see: Why Successful Leaders Fail in a Highly Collaborative Culture). Doing well in a collaborative company need not be a mystery though. Here are the steps most crucial to success.

1. Assess Your Intentions.

A key foundation of collaboration is goodwill and good intent towards the people you work with.  Over the long term, people will discern your true intentions. If your intention is to develop high-trust, meaningful relationships where all parties can be successful, people will sense that.

But if your intent is to drive your own agenda no matter what, even if you’re able to mask that with clever, collaborative communication techniques, people will sniff it out. Intent is a powerful first principle for good collaboration, because it defines the mindset that you bring to relationships, which will invariably become evident.  People respond favorably to authentic good will.

If your intent is to drive your own agenda no matter what, even if you’re able to mask that with clever, collaborative communication techniques, people will sniff it out.

Slow down and reflect on what your intentions really are.  It’s best to do this without judgment of “good” or “bad,” but just taking a sober look.  Whatever those intentions are, are they what you want them to be?  Assuming that people will detect your true motivations, are you comfortable with what they will see?  If not, how would you change?  This self-reflection goes a long way towards helping you become more of the leader you want to be. (For a deep-dive into how we can hold others as human beings rather than as objects working for or against our own gain, see the classic book: Leadership and Self Deception).

2. Ask Open Questions.

Open questions typically start with words like, “What,” “How,” and “Tell me about…?”  They leave a lot of room for the other person to think and to talk.  They allow for open reflection and maximum sharing.

For example, “How are things going on your team?” is a question that invites almost any kind of answer and allows the other person a great deal of space. Open questions are very valuable–and very different–from closed questions, which tend to elicit one-word or very short answers. Examples of closed questions are more along the lines of, “Have you thought about firing that person?” or, “Have you fixed that yet?”

Open questions, when combined with good listening, show a keen interest in really understanding your colleague. 

While closed questions are useful in some situations, open questions are often more productive for building trust–a key to effective collaboration.  That’s because open questions, when combined with good listening, show a keen interest in really understanding your colleague.  They show that you have set down your own needs, at least temporarily, to grasp their world.  They foster understanding.  Remember that the more you understand others–their concerns, perspectives, motivations and needs–the better collaborator you can be.

3. Listen Effectively.

Listening is another crucial pillar of collaboration. People need to know that you’re truly interested, that you value what they’re saying and hear where they’re coming from. They’re much more likely to work well with you if they feel you have a genuine interest in them.

One of the best ways to prove interest is through good listening. To show you are listening, make eye contact, don’t interrupt, don’t multitask; and allow others to fully complete their thoughts.  But real listening goes deeper.  The best listening springs from good intent.  People know if you are listening with an intent to understand and help them, or if you are simply pausing while you craft your next argument to get what you want.

One key to good listening that is often overlooked is to periodically summarize back themes that you’ve heard–the most important thoughts and feelings.  So, after hearing a lengthy diatribe on the challenges that someone is having on their team, you might say: “So it sounds like two of your direct reports have a conflict, and it’s really frustrating! Is that right?” In addition to providing proof that you’ve heard them, summarizing also has the virtue of slowing you down and helping make sure that you’re not putting your agenda first.

Listening really is in the eye of the beholder. You may think you’re listening well and understanding the other person, but what really matters is, do they believe that you’re listening? See: To Develop Executive Presence, Learn to Listen.

4. Cultivate Curiosity.

Curiosity is a powerful driver of collaborative communication. The more curious you are, the more likely you are to ask good questions, to listen, and not to be overly focused on driving your own agenda. Being curious has a lightness about it.  Genuine curiosity does not result in interrogation but more of a good natured inquiry, listening with an open mind and a desire to really understand.

One reason curiosity drives collaboration is that, like several of these tips, it opens your mind to seeing and learning things you don’t already know.  Curiosity involves an openness and spirit of exploration.  If you can be curious about someone’s behavior, then there is room for you to learn more about them.  It’s hard to close your mind or put on blinders when you’re curious.

If you are able to put into practice even one of these first four steps, you’ll be off to a great start in working well in a collaborative company.

In the next blog I talk about suspending judgment, acknowledging the good, being transparent, and developing a more collaborative vocabulary.