Businesses are coalescing into ecosystems and becoming more interconnected, dynamic and interdependent. This trend began well before the pandemic but has accelerated in the past year. The trend is driving a reexamination of how we manage our businesses, employees and partners as we adjust to this environment. An ecosystem business model requires a more agile, collaborative and inclusive approach to leadership.

There’s a lot of business literature describing the difference between management and leadership. Here’s an example from a 2013 Harvard Business Review article: “Management consists of controlling a group or a set of entities to accomplish a goal. Leadership refers to an individual’s ability to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward organizational success. Influence and inspiration separate leaders from managers, not power and control.”

The differences are even more pronounced when you add “collaborative” into the mix. Collaboration requires the active contribution of every team member, harnessing their diversity into creative power and inspiring them to apply their collective energy to produce something of value.

People who manage B2B collaborations are a rare breed. How do you get people from different organizations to work together effectively and collaboratively without the fancy titles or formal authority? Partner managers are expected to align cross-functional teams across two or more organizations around a shared vision and lead the execution and achievement of the business objectives of the collaboration and of the respective collaborating organizations. I spoke to the challenges and rewards of alignment in this article.

In my practice of helping companies design, build and operate collaborative business ecosystems, I have identified five key traits of successful collaborative leaders. 

1. They encourage disparate points of view and new ideas.

Innovation is ignited by a diversity of ideas and thinking. I wrote about collaborative innovation in an earlier post. Differences can cause conflict and even heated arguments. The collaborative leader knows how to harness the creative power in these differences to drive innovation. The leader sets the stage and tone for the dialogue. They encourage everyone to come forth with their ideas. They encourage the team and welcome every idea and point of view even when they disagree. These are all tinder to ignite innovation. They nurture an environment where team members treat each other with respect, especially when they disagree.

2. They recognize that everyone has something to contribute.

My dad used to say, “If you talk to a stupid person and you don’t learn anything, then who’s the stupid person?” That was his way of saying that everyone has something to contribute and we owe everyone the respect of listening.

As a facilitator, I was trained in the rule of four. This rule says that in any group, only about four people speak out. I have found this to be true whether in a group of four or a group of a hundred. A skilled collaborative leader will ensure that the dialogue is not dominated by the outspoken four or the loudest voices in the group but will draw out the quiet ones and ask for their ideas and opinions to ensure they have a voice.

People support what they help to create. In this light, it is important that everyone has a voice and that everyone’s voice is respected. It pays off downstream when the team is called to action. Everyone who has creative ownership will go above and beyond to ensure success.

3. They exercise influence rather than command-and-control.

Collaborative leaders appeal to a common vision and aligned self-interests. They are often influential within their organizations based on these skills yet exercise restraint in the use of positional power. As a leader, I have found that I get more from the team if I hold back. Once I voice an opinion or direction, the team aligns, but that shuts down the conversation and the flow of ideas. This is the great flaw in the command-and-control approach. It limits the ability to harness the wisdom of the team. The collaborative leader uses their voice judiciously to provide guardrails to the conversation, never to dominate it.

4. They practice transparency and information-sharing.

Openness in communication is a great trust builder, but it’s also true that some information needs to be protected. One of the tenets of collaboration is establishing clarity around what can be shared and what cannot. The more you can share, however, the more you will enhance the ability of the collaboration to generate new ideas and solve problems.

I recall a partner negotiation where our partner had plenty of operating expense (opex) but constraints on capital expense (capex). The partner was not initially forthcoming on that fact, assuming that it would be a disadvantage to their negotiating position. However, after a lot of probing, it was revealed. Once my team figured out the opex/capex issues and the partner finally showed their cards, we altered the deal to meet their needs without compromising our net value.

5. They have a bias toward win-win, value-creating outcomes.

I once worked for a boss who thought that win-win meant he won twice. This was not an environment conducive to collaboration, as everyone was looking out for themselves and watching their backs. Collaboration requires a working environment where the players are seeking mutual gain. The situation mentioned above is an example. Once we got into joint problem-solving mode, we worked to solve the partner’s problem and create a win for ourselves.

A colleague recently commented that you could suffer from too much collaboration, to which I replied, “Then you aren’t doing it right.” Her point was that teams often try to suppress all conflict in the interest of harmony and end up suppressing good ideas, or worse, not confronting bad ones. Effective collaboration is not all unicorns and rainbows and blissful harmony. You want to reach a place of harmony eventually, but process of getting there can be messy. A collaborative leadership style is crucial to reaching that place and is crucial to the success of business ecosystems.