Collaboration is Key

I learned at an early age that working together is the best way to get things done. My baby sister was born on a freezing Tuesday night in February. As Dad traveled for work, Mom sank into what we now know was post-partum depression. I was the oldest child, and it fell to me, at age ten, to take over. How the heck was I going to do this?

With lots of help. I learned quickly how to mix formula, change and clean cloth diapers, and take care of a newborn. I enlisted the neighbors to pitch in for grocery shopping and home-cooked meals. I made sure my six-year-old brother go to kindergarten, and when he returned, that he watched our three-year-old-sister. Mom was in bed for almost three weeks, until one morning she got up, got dressed, and became Mom again.

That experience was an early lesson in the power of collaboration. Fast forward a few years to when I was promoted to my first important leadership position. I was a thirty-something in charge of 12 sites and 1,400 employees (as well as 2,000 contractors) for a financial services company. I literally could not handle it all on my own. So what was I going to do? After a few sleepless nights of sheer panic, it came to me. Do it the way you’ve always done it. By fostering collaboration.

Despite warnings from (mostly male) mentors who thought command and control was the only way to go, I fostered collaboration. I hired the best people I could find—most of them women, who like myself, were used to collaborating—and empowered them to run each site. Then I coached them to foster collaboration within their sites, and within their work teams, and so on down the line.

We also collaborated across the aisle.

In financial services, sales and operations often see themselves as adversaries. I’m an ops girl, but I always thought this infighting was, frankly, stupid and counterproductive. We all wanted the same thing, right? To sell, process, and underwrite as many loans as possible.

Once I had the authority, I led my team across the aisle. We created professional friendships. We established a cross-functional leadership team. We cross-trained work teams. Once we cracked open the silos, innovation grew astronomically. We developed new products, new methods, new techniques. Our productivity soared. That year, our region won the aptly named Bridge Award for the most effective collaboration between sales and ops companywide.

            When I opened my own business in strategic HR consulting, I remembered that lesson. From the start, my mission has been to preach the gospel of collaboration. I coach clients to create workplaces built on collaboration and celebration. I counsel clients to treat their employees as they would A-star clients. Collaboration is the “Yes, and…” of business management, the missing ingredient of the secret sauce. When businesses promote collaboration, only good things happen—workers stretch their limits, they grow and succeed, and so does the business.

That’s all nice and fuzzy, you might say, but If collaboration works, why don’t more businesses do it?

Fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear that collaboration isn’t “manly” enough, isn’t powerful enough, doesn’t show the proper authority.

I see that as a good sign, though, a sign that things are ready to change. We should honor this fear, and collaborate with it. Working with fear stretches our limits, takes us out of our comfort zones, allows us to take risks and create new things. Because one thing I know is that with collaboration, we can overcome fear and, in the process, release the creative energy locked in the siloes of traditional corporate structure, buried in the minds of workers held captive in those same siloes. Once set in motion, like a chain reaction in atomic physics, the energy of collaboration is awesome to behold—it expands into all corners of the company.

Can you imagine a world where collaboration is the normal way of doing business? Where we all cooperate with each other, listen to different viewpoints (even those we disagree with), encourage others to think outside the box, try new things, and break out of the mindset of fear that limits us all. I can, and it is my mission to release the energy of collaboration client by client. I foster collaboration not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the smart thing.