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This is the last of three posts on stepping up to success in a new executive role. Take advantage of the “Questions from the Coach” at the end of each one.

The transition from command to collaboration is similar to the shift from authority to influence. Both are dependent on the leader’s willingness to attribute value to employees and to their contributions. In one organization I’ve worked with, the leader was unwilling to do that. She actively devalued the staff with an overbearing and critical attitude. There could be no collaboration because the leader did not exhibit trust in the team. Instead, the leader proofed emails before they could be sent, double-checked figures, and listened in on phone calls. The team was so demobilized by the commanding and perfectionist tone that they lost much of their motivation. Knowing that the boss would pick apart and redo the work anyhow, they stopped doing their best. In this case, the commanding leadership tone cut off all possibility of the improved productivity and better employee engagement possible in a collaborative atmosphere.

One aspect of successful collaboration is the humble admission that you don’t have all the answers. This was exemplified by Mark Fields, the CEO of Hertz and the former CEO of Ford Motor Company. Analysts have noted that Fields was able to weather some very tough times at the auto manufacturer by bringing a “cohesive and collaborative” leadership culture to Ford. Fields proved that he trusted in the strengths of others in the organization, offering them support when they struggled. “I’ve gotten better at involving everybody, and learning to ask the right questions,” Fields said, “never with the intent of thinking [I] have all the answers.” He built a collaborative culture through humility, trust, support, and curiosity. My own success as a CEO was founded on collaboration as well. It wasn’t a philosophical goal as much as a survival strategy. The industry was new to me, and I had much to learn. After a few months of being overwhelmed, I humbly asked the staff for help. Instead of eroding my authority, my honest expression of need seemed to motivate. The team began to anticipate my needs, cooperate, take on additional work, and freely share ideas and suggestions. In this state of renewed unity, I survived, and the team thrived.

The use of questions is a key tool in developing the two-way communication that builds collaboration. Questions involve people, inviting them to solve problems rather than simply doing what they’re told. As a result, there is a significant increase in the employee’s ownership of their work and the outcomes they get from their efforts. Not all types of questions will net positive results, however. How you structure questions is key to producing the desired outcome. Questions that can be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ are often the wrong kind of questions – they feel like interrogation. The right questions are ones that ask the employee to engage in the process. These are open-ended questions that require critical thought and spark thoughtful dialogue. Great questions often start with the words what, why, when, how, where, or who. All six of these words dig up the facts of a situation. In my experience, the very best questions begin with ‘what’ or ‘how,’ words that not only pull together facts but also open a conversation and allow it to expand into new areas. As you work with your team, consider a more intentional and disciplined use of open-ended questions instead of directions or commands. I’ve seen this make a big, positive difference in employee motivation and engagement.

Like many important business terms, the word “collaboration” has become a buzzword that’s lost some of its meaning and power. What does real and effective collaboration look like? I recently read a set of four criteria for successful collaboration. First is that the purpose is clear and shared. As a leader, you’ve taken the time to lay out the specific rationale for working together. Second is that issues are framed in practical terms. What you communicate isn’t abstract or ideological but tangible. Third is that participants are directly impacted and have a stake in the solution. The conversation isn’t just between you and your executive team, it includes people from whatever part of the organization is affected. The fourth aspect is that the participants have authority to implement solutions. You’ve delegated not only the responsibility to handle the issue but also the power to make a change. All four characteristics of successful collaboration are the result of leadership. You’ve communicated purpose in such a way that people understand why they’re working together. While this takes time, it’s foundational. In addition, you’ve gathered those most able to work together and most likely to care about the issue and you’ve made clear what they need to accomplish. You’ve released control of the outcome and empowered the collaborators.

Questions from the Coach:

  • How have you shown that you value your staff and their contributions?
  • What was a time when you realized you didn’t have all the answers? Did you admit it? What was the result?
  • How would you describe successful collaboration? What can you communicate to your team to improve the collaborative atmosphere?

Thanks for reading these three posts on leadership skills that keep you on track in a transition to executive leadership. With a focus on people over tasks, a reliance on influence over authority, and a style that’s more collaborative than commanding, you will leverage your potential as well as that of all those you lead. As Marshall Goldsmith said, “Successful people become great leaders when they learn to shift the focus from themselves to others.”

I help CEOs and other executives get strategic clarity and implement their plans with confidence. Reach out anytime: ken@reliance-leadership.com.

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