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Next Gen Leadership 

Engage Through Collaboration: Four Key Steps

I have trouble letting go of papers, plans and ideas.  I am an independent person and previously enjoyed a delicious attachment to what I think is right and important for others and myself.  In short, I like to be in control, or at least, I used to believe that I could be.  Life, however, has surprised me with twists and turns that have caused me to rethink my once deeply held belief that “Catherine knows best.”

In fact, Catherine knows a lot, but she doesn’t know, and can’t know, everything.  That’s where collaboration comes in.  I’ve learned this lesson many times over, and now, I fully embrace the notion that working with others and sharing ideas typically makes things go a whole lot better. 

Early in my career, I worked in marketing and was almost ready to release a new product to a large franchise system, when a team member raised his hand and let me know why the program wasn’t going to work.  I was embarrassed and a bit flustered.  As team leader, I felt a little out of control.  After I defended my point of view, my team member simply stated that he wanted the program to be a success. He was worried that if we didn’t pay attention to the operational issue that he identified, the program could flop, and that would be a huge waste of time and resources.  Somehow, the way he put it, I was able to hear that his comment was not a criticism of my leadership skills, or me. Rather, it was about the project - the very thing that I also wanted to go well - and I was able to listen.  And thank goodness I did.   He was right.  We took the time to make some adjustments and the rollout was a huge success. I was grateful. I let him (and the team) know how much I appreciated his honesty and his courage to question the process so it could be better.   Best of all, that fellow and I continue to have a great and trusting working relationship  - and it’s been over two decades since our first team encounter.

This is one of the many times that the implementation of a key organizational project has been made more successful by collaboration. 

 So what is collaboration? 

There are many definitions, but the way I look at it, it is a willingness to let go of your idea and be open to the ideas of others so that an even better idea can emerge. 

And how does that actually happen?  Four key steps:

1)   Clearly communicate to stakeholder or experts what you want to accomplish;

2)   Ask key stakeholders and experts for their feedback and insights and perspective about the project;

3)   Open yourself to the possibility that their input may cause you to change your approach or your perspective - if it can lead to a better outcome or process; and

4)   Respond to feedback.  Share the decision that was made and the reasons why.  Thank and acknowledge the stakeholders and experts for their contributions.

The last item, “acknowledgement,” often gets forgotten, but it is important.  If someone takes the time and care to share with you what they think, it’s key to close the feedback loop and let them know why their input was, or was not incorporated into the final solution.  It is also good practice to thank team members for speaking up as a signal to them that it is safe for them to do so in future, as well as to acknowledge their desire to make a contribution.

Even when stakeholder feedback won’t lead to a better or different approach, or to a better outcome… its worth gathering the information.  As the leader, you don’t have to implement every suggestion that is made.  I find that just asking for feedback and considering it, makes projects more successful.  When team members have concerns and issues and leaders address them, they feel heard. Most contributors understand that organizations can’t implement every idea that gets surfaced.  They understand there are resource constraints, and that sometimes, timeliness requires that 98% be good enough.

Perhaps one of the best outcomes of collaboration I’ve experienced, is that once it occurs, the individuals who share feedback and feel heard, are more aligned with the project.  Knowing that their opinion is valued and considered, gives them a sense of empowerment and a greater stake in making a project or an organization more successful.  That my friends, is called employee engagement! It’s a beautiful thing: If collaboration results in a better end product and an empowered, committed team, what’s not to like?