Modern leadership is not your grandfather’s leadership. Instead of focusing on control, modern leaders collaborate. Instead of hiding management from employees, today’s best managers are out on the floor, learning from their employees so they can make the company a better place. Where old leadership styles falter, new leadership styles inspire innovation within the company and empower employees to take ownership of their work.
I once knew a manager at an entertainment firm who was the archetype of a traditional leader. He believed that the key to success was maintaining strict control over his employees and making all of the big decisions himself, while only allowing his employees to take care of the day-to-day tasks. Employees who had ideas could put them in a suggestion box that he would review once a month. It was a strict, traditional leadership hierarchy, and through the 80s and 90s, it worked well for many businesses.
However, as the industry changed and his workforce retired, soon to be replaced by newer, younger employees, this structure stopped working. The suggestion box was filled with ideas to implement social media marketing campaigns, add updated acts to the roster, and focus on growing industries in the area. By the time he got around to reading those suggestions and scheduling strategy meetings to consider how to implement them, his competitors (mainly new startups) were already doing everything in the suggestion box instead of merely strategizing about it. These competitors got in first on the social media wave, signed the area’s hottest new acts, and got the new clients in the up-and-coming industries, while he was still busy scheduling strategy meetings.
While the company didn’t fail, it’s now much smaller than it used to be, mainly booking acts for retirement homes. Meanwhile, those startups now own the market share of major entertainment venues in the area. The bottom line? New leadership isn’t about passing down orders—it’s about encouraging collaboration.
Taking Advantage of Collaborative Technology
In the above story, the company suffered because the manager stifled innovation by creating too much of a hierarchy, so it was impossible for employees with good ideas to reach management. Now, successful leaders have open door policies, giving their workers direct access to them at any time in order to share ideas. Some of these companies take advantage of technology in order to streamline these brainstorming sessions and give their employees real time access.
Consider the case of online retailer Salesforce.[1. Ibarra, Herminia, and Morten Hansen. “Are You a Collaborative Leader?” Harvard Business Review, Aug. 2011. Web. https://hbr.org/2011/07/are-you-a-collaborative-leader] Salesforce developed an application called “Chatter”, which allowed employees to chat with each other, sharing information and ideas. This started out as a technological solution—the sort of “let’s collaborate without having to walk across the room” strategy that was once very popular. It didn’t take long for the CEO, Marc Benioff, to see that it was actually much more than that: it was a window into how his company thought. He realized that so many good ideas were being created through these Chatter discussions, but upper management had no idea about them. Ultimately, it allowed him to look at his company in a different light. Rather than having “management” and “employees” with a few go-betweens, he needed an open and expansive business where everyone knew each other and everyone could collaborate. He put this into practice during an annual management meeting. When 200 high-level employees met for a discussion, he also opened up the meeting for thousands of employees on Chatter. Ideas were discussed, connections were made, and the faceless—both bosses and employees—suddenly had faces, got to know each other, and worked together to develop ideas.
The point here isn’t so much the technology. There are a lot of great tools for interaction besides Chatter. Google Drive (including chat), Basecamp, Microsoft 365, Trello, Wonderlist, and social networks all work (Chatter was inspired by Facebook). However, these tools should be used not just to communicate, but to collaborate. The Salesforce example shows how you don’t just use the right technology to be efficient, but to create a space for everyone to share their ideas. In practice, this means training people on how to correctly use the programs and setting an example from the top down about communication.
The New Qualities of Leadership
Businesses have all the necessary tools to create this collaboration, meaning the managers of old who maintain a strict, inflexible hierarchy, will miss out on potential gains. But what about modern managers?
The kind of leader who is able to open up a true collaborative dialogue with their employees should be:
In a recent study by University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School, in collaboration with Human Capital Institute, 37% of respondents agreed that collaborative skills were an integral part of leading competently in our digital—and often global—business community.[2. “New Study Examines How to Develop Globally Competent Leaders.” Association for Talent Development, 24 June 2015. Web. 07 Dec. 2015. https://www.td.org/Publications/Blogs/Learning-Executive-Blog/2015/06/New-Study-Examines-How-to-Develop-Globally-Competent-Leaders] On the full list of key skills, much of the focus was placed on how leaders work with others, rather than their ability to control a situation and the actions of their workers. These newly desired leaders are fast, flexible, and able to adapt to new situations.
Former Asheboro, North Carolina, superintendent, Diane L. Frost, is a good example.[3. Delaware Superintendent in the Running for National Recognition.” Newsworks.org. N.p., 05 Jan. 2012. Web. 07 Dec. 2015. http://www.newsworks.org/index.php/local/delaware-feature/32247-delaware-superintendent-in-the-running-for-national-recognition] Frost was a highly collaborative leader, who looked to work with everyone in order to get ideas on how to better educate the children in her district. When she started, as is the case with many school districts, there was a certain amount of tension between the school board and the office of the superintendent. Well-meaning groups on both sides have different agendas and priorities. Dr. Frost made sure that there was a “board/superintendent” team, rather than two different centers of power. This is important in any industry, when competing groups work at odds, even if they have the same goal in mind. Dr. Frost used this collaboration to expand school grounds throughout the district, open modern facilities even during a recession, and bring more technology into the schools.[4. “Amid the Accolades, Some Disappointments, Too.” June 23, 2014. http://courier-tribune.com/news/amid-accolades-some-disappointments-too] Her key recognition is that modern times, when technology, tools, and needs can change so quickly, need modern and open means of communication and involvement. Having a top-heavy system doesn’t work anymore. What works is an open system that lets every voice contribute.
This was also the case with teachers, students, and parents. Dr. Frost made sure to get them involved in board meetings and strengthened the PTA. This wasn’t a matter of bureaucratic nicety, but a way to make sure every group got represented. Her use of collaboration allowed her to achieve a record high 84% graduation rate in her tenure. She was also a finalist for the 2012 AASA National Superintendent of the Year.
Collaborative leadership works in any industry, even one where many believe that strict control is needed, like education. There’s always a way to leave doors open and collaborate to improve your results. By being an accessible, open leader, you get to benefit from the expertise around you, rather than relying exclusively on your own experience and perspective.
New Leadership for a New Market
Regardless of your industry, you have to admit that the digital world has made an impact. There are a million resources out there and a million ways to manage time effectively, all while having an open door policy that keeps employees sharing ideas and opens the lines of communication. With more competition comes the need to be able to operate at a fast pace. Collaborative leadership is the key to keeping up the pace.
At Applied Vision Works, we believe in core set of 35 leadership principles that will help you banish an old, dated leadership style, and embrace your new collaborative leadership skills to empower workers and inspire innovation.