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3 things CEOs must do to ensure effective collaboration

Ensuring effective collaboration

Like the old saying that charity begins at home, effective collaboration within an organization begins at the top. In other words, if a company's leadership team does not communicate, collaborate, and work towards a common goal, they will find it difficult, if not impossible, to work effectively with other internal and external stakeholders including customers.

Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of interviewing some of the top minds in both the public and private sectors regarding collaboration best practices for leaders. I have also written extensively about the collaborative process in various industries. In every industry, there has been one common denominator or theme creating significant challenges in this important area for business leaders - the redefinition of traditional roles within the enterprise.

According to Gartner, as we move towards a greater digital reality, traditional roles and responsibilities within an enterprise are changing. Take the CIO as an example. Gartner predicts that CMOs will spend more money on IT services than CIOs in the coming years! CMOs have more direct relationships with customers than CIOs; they leverage various technologies to connect with users at multiple points along the sales process. So, it only makes sense that a CMO drives both the relationships and technologies that support the company's customers.

In the context of this new reality, not only the CEO but also the various department heads need to take a more holistic view of the enterprise starting with the abandonment of the long-existing mindsets that limit their focus to a myopic departmental role. Instead, leadership must expand their thinking beyond the familiar confines of traditional roles and responsibilities. Further, CEOs must encourage department heads to be influencers for a collective and cohesive enterprise-wide strategy that is based on a clear ‘line of sight’ understanding beyond their respective departments. The management team's efforts to reset their focus on collective goals instead of individual roles helps create a framework for effective collaboration within the organization.

To establish this framework, CEOs must focus on the following 3 areas:

The Will to Collaborate

In the absence of traditional functional roles (and the affiliations that come with them), is it possible for an entire enterprise to rally around one set of goals and objectives or is that too many people trying to work in parallel?

Think about the I-35 bridge replacement project in Minnesota that Kate Vitasek and others have talked extensively about. It was an incredibly complex project employing new methodologies under extremely challenging circumstances. Through an open-book framework for collaboration, with honest communication and well-designed performance incentives for the contractors, diverse elements came together to build the bridge on time and budget. In fact, the bridge opened to traffic more than three months early!

In the end, it was not a matter of whether the desired outcome was achievable, but whether stakeholders had the desire and will to get it done. So, yes, an entire enterprise can and should rally around one set of goals and objectives, and the will to collaborate is one of the keys to their success.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Kate, she is the driving force behind the University of Tennessee's pioneering research and development of the award-winning Vested® and Vested Outsourcing business model and movement. She is also the author of several books including Vested: How P&G, McDonald’s and Microsoft Are Redefining Winning In Business Relationships, and Getting To We: Negotiating Agreements For Highly Collaborative Relationships.

A Plan to Communicate

With the will to collaborate there must also be a plan to communicate.

The success of the I-35 bridge replacement project would be impossible without a definitive plan to foster open and honest communication between its stakeholders - internal and external.

Open communication within an enterprise may seem like a given or that it should be a given. However, and according to a Queens University of Charlotte study, while the desire to communicate exists, 39 percent of employees surveyed worldwide indicate that their organizations do not collaborate enough. Since collaboration begins at the top, there are definite steps leaders can take to foster effective communication.

This article from The Young Entrepreneur Council, an invite-only organization composed of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs, provides several important steps CEOs can take to help departments “communicate issues regularly and clearly with each other.”

Among my favorites are encouraging a culture of communication, spending a day with another department, and leveraging technology to facilitate and better manage enterprise-wide communication including establishing a company wiki.

In short, the desire to communicate without an actionable plan is an exercise in wishful thinking. By moving beyond the intent to communicate and putting it into practice, each partner can realize their “own” benefit in achieving the collective goal. And their “individual” skill sets and expertise are matched and managed more effectively through open communication.

Manage Outcomes and Benefits

A collaborative plan working towards a specific outcome or outcomes results in a shared benefit. However, this does not mean that the benefit is the same for all internal and external stakeholders. So you need to manage outcomes and benefits individually as well as collectively.

Recognizing these differences and being able to act on them in a productive and mutually beneficial way is at the heart of McMaster University’s digital transformation. Consistently ranked as one of the world’s top 100 higher education institutions (McMaster’s most recent global ranking is 77th), the university’s AVP & CTO, Gayleen Gray, is the champion of their Digital Moments initiative.

According to Gray, Digital Moments are the stories and insights her team has gathered from the McMaster community sharing how they envision digital transformation will impact their world. It is, as she puts it, “a crucial part of our ability to realize both individually and collectively the full digital promise outlined in our IT Strategic Vision.”

In her article “Driving Digital Transformation Is A Matter of People and Moments,” Gray shares how the collective outcome delivers unique benefits to different stakeholders such as students and faculty. Specifically, that “being able to capture and incorporate the unique needs and objectives of everyone into a single, coherent strategy is ultimately the key to digital realization and success.” Gray concludes by stressing that “you do not gain these kinds of insights working in a vacuum, and that “you need to connect with people all over the institution and talk and learn and understand.”

Will, Plan, and Manage

I often reflect on the words of an associate who travels the world speaking to executives as the Sensei Leader; the solution or answer to most questions is “simple, not easy.” Simple in that you know you need to take action, and not easy because bridging the distance between where you are today and where you want to be tomorrow requires the will to do something, a plan as to how you will do it, and ongoing involvement, i.e., management to stay the course until you realize the desired outcome.

As a CEO, this journey begins with you.


A two-time Ottawa finalist for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award, Jon Hansen has written nearly 3,000 articles and papers, as well as 5 books on subjects as diverse as supply chain practice, public sector policy, emerging business trends, and social media.

Leadership, Communication

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