Alliance Management Consulting and Training, Partnering Frameworks and Tools, Collaborative Leadership

Collaborative Leadership: The Antidote to the Collaboration Paradox
1. Partnering Guide / January 21st, 2020     A+ | a-
Thus far in this series of posts on collaboration, we’ve defined it as a purposeful, strategic behavior that is easier said than done. This is because of both a failure to build the capability—the mindset, skillset, and toolset—to collaborate across boundaries and the collaboration paradox—the systems, processes, and policies that helped companies be successful in the past that today impede their ability to collaborate. In this post we look at both collaborative leadership and the leadership system required to support and implement the capability as the antidote to the people and organizational challenges of achieving success in cross-boundary collaborations.

Defining Collaborative Leadership

Collaborative leadership is the ability to rally people and their resources, broadly defined to include both traditional resources and relationship currencies, around the strategic purpose of collaborating as defined by the value it brings to customers and collaborators[1].  This strategic purpose is known as the North Star. Collaborative leaders create the trusting, respectful environment in which activities can be prioritized and coordinated, and information exchanged in pursuit of that North Star. These leaders accomplish alignment with the strategic purpose absent traditional levers of control and instead use their collaborative skills to help would-be collaborators understand why it is in their interest to make their resources and relationship currencies available for mutual benefit. 

Collaborative leaders play a variety of different roles, depending on the situation at hand:
  • Entrepreneurial catalyst— Guide people to learn fast, to make assumptions about how collaborators might achieve a desired outcome; to put those assumptions into practice; learn if it works and if not, why not, and to iterate assumptions and try again.
  • Discerning orchestrator—Bring customers, partners, and stakeholders together to create and implement solutions that provide desired outcomes and experiences for all concerned, bridging differences and aligning interests to reach the North Star
  • Empathetic coach—Use listening and speaking skills to understand motivations, interests, and challenges collaborators have in navigating the organization and the partner, helping the collaborators solve problems in a manner that produces a fair and efficient distribution of value, keeping them aligned with the North Star
  • Enthusiastic evangelist—Advocate for collaborators, helping them attain and leverage resources, evolve culture, build trust, and champion the collaboration with relevant stakeholders
  • Diplomatic influencer—Help people see that it is in their best interest to make their resources and relationship currencies available to their collaborators, or to do something differently, so that there is a mutually beneficial outcome
 Whatever the specific situation, collaborative leaders:[2]
  • Inspire others to embrace what can only be achieved by harnessing the collective wisdom and resources of the ecosystem
  • Think, communicate, and act holistically, always bringing the customer’s perspective
  • Break down the traditional boundaries of functional and organizational silos and blast through complexity to create agile, cross-functional teams that mesh with their external partners
  • Create opportunities for agile experimentation and the means to advance them through the business, eliminating non-value-added process and tearing down structural, cultural, and political barriers
  • Help people viscerally grasp what is different as they collectively reach for the North Star
Collaborative work requires everyone to be leaders. What leadership means is different if you are in the executive suite, the front lines, or the middle of the organization. Each has a different role to play. Executives must demonstrate the behavior they expect, foster the right environment, provide the resources required, and effect the necessary organizational changes. The leaders in the middle of the organization, including the alliance and partnering professionals who are the tip of the spear of collaborative leadership, are the coaches of the front lines—the people who engage with customers and partners on a daily basis and who make or break any collaboration. It is the leaders in the middle who must play the multi-dimensional role of change agent and orchestrator, all the while building the capability—the mindset, skillset, and toolset—that enables the company to execute in collaborative models.

The Leadership System

Every organization has a leadership system. It is the vehicle through which leadership is exercised. It manifests itself through interdependent and reinforcing mechanisms for:
  • Decision making and execution
  • Leader selection and development
  • Accountability to deliver desired experiences and outcomes for customers, partners, and stakeholders
  • Shaping and structuring the organization
  • Advancing an organization’s cultural norms, values, and ethics
 An organization’s leadership system has both formal and informal elements and is embedded in its processes and culture. It usually isn’t talked about much, but it shows up in every aspect of an organization.
The elements depicted in Figure 1, 
Elements of a Leadership System, constitute a typical leadership system. There is not a one-size-fits-all collaborative leadership system because how leadership is exercised in any given organization varies based on structure and purpose. 

Barriers to Collaboration
 A collaboration paradox emerges when the leadership system supports processes and behaviors that are barriers to effective collaboration. For example, as we described in Collaboration: Easier Said than Done some performance management systems still support a stacked “calibration” in which individuals on a team are pitted against each other when the desire is that they collaborate. Or perhaps resource allocation doesn’t take into account contractual commitments to partners, leaving alliances scrambling to gain access to people, money, and equipment. In both cases, the way the components of the leadership system are operationalized creates a disincentive or barrier to collaboration. These barriers are the key causes of friction and inefficiencies—i.e., lost time, money, and opportunity—when partnering.
We’ve shared data in the past that senior leadership thinks their organizations collaborate well, but employees don’t agree. This C-Suite collaboration gap is caused at least in part by the collaboration paradox. We asked the ASAP community to identify the barriers to collaboration and partnering causing inefficiencies. They gave us a very long list that include both individual, non-collaborative behaviors encouraged by their existing leadership systems, as well as structural barriers. We’ve summarized their list against the seven components of a leadership system. Figure 2, Barriers to Effective Collaboration, represents the most frequently cited aspects of non-collaborative leadership systems.[3]  

The leadership system is the backbone that enables and supports collaborative behavior and is part of shaping culture. These barriers to collaboration have to be removed if organizations are to become agile and succeed in our customer-obsessed, partnering everywhere world of 2020.

What Makes a Leadership System Collaborative?
Figure 3 – Key Characteristics of a Collaborative Leadership System describes the desired mindset and focus needed to engage successfully in today’s ecosystems. The objective of the new, collaborative leadership system? To ensure that processes and culture don’t prevent people from collaborating, purposefully and opportunistically, with colleagues in their own organizations, and, in one-to-one alliances, multi-partner engagements, and in ecosystems. Additionally, leadership systems operate at many levels, including how a manager incentivizes her department, a team leader encourages accountability, or an alliance governance structure aligns its decision-making calendar with the internal governance calendars of the partners. Alliance and partner professionals influence and in some instances control how these elements of a leadership system are implemented and can do so in ways that advance a collaborative agenda.
Collaborative leaders at all levels of the organization need to translate each characteristic into specific policy, process, structure, and behavior appropriate for their company and the partners it works with to provide customers, partners, and their companies the value and experiences they desire. In our partnering everywhere world, it is essential to evolve leadership and the system through which leadership is exercised to break the collaboration paradox.

[1] Relationship currencies are the insights, expertise, access, capacity, and anything that is useful to achieving objectives that can be obtained because a trusting relationship exists between the offeror and recipient. See The Real Power of Collaboration,, The Rhythm of Business, 2009. Also, Cohen and Bradford, Influence without Authority, 3rd edition, Wiley, 2017.
[2] Jan Twombly, Jeff Shuman, and Lorin Coles, Own Your Transformation: A Five-Point Agenda for Creating Your Organization’s Collaborative Leadership System for a Digital World,
Insights from the SMART Partnering Alliance of The Rhythm of Business and Alliancesphere.
[3] Jan Twombly and Jeff Shuman, “Partnering Readiness: The New Strategic Leadership Agenda for Partnering Professionals,” Strategic Alliance Quarterly, Q4 2019
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