Collaborative Leadership Can Bring Culture Change

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Katherine Canales, SweetRush
Summary: Does increased employee engagement, productivity, innovation, agility, and customer loyalty/satisfaction sound appealing to you? Team and enterprise dysfunction got you feeling stuck? Fran Willis-White, SweetRush's Change Management Expert, invites you to discover collaborative leadership!

How Collaborative Leadership Can Bring Culture Change

Are you ready to change your leadership approach and shift dramatically for good?

As a leader, you know there is a range of dysfunctions—from minor to significant—that are impediments to growth and success. (For simplicity, let’s call them “kinks.”) How do you remove these kinks? One proven method is collaborative leadership. Decades of research on companies in a range of industries have reported multiple benefits of a collaborative leadership strategy. Highlights include increased employee engagement, productivity, innovation, agility, and customer loyalty/satisfaction. Collaborative leadership unleashes an organization’s ability to: a) tap its collective intelligence to generate creative solutions and innovative ideas, and b) increase the speed and quality of decision-making as functional boundaries are removed. Or, in highly technical terms, it removes kinks—and ultimately brings about culture change.

eBook Release: Transforming Culture In Larger Organizations
eBook Release
Transforming Culture In Larger Organizations
Learn how to help implement cultural transformation in your organization.

What Is Collaborative Leadership?

Collaborative leadership is a model for managing and sharing organizational resources, relationships, and authority. A recent blog post from the collaboration platform, Slack, noted “collaborative leadership is a management practice that aims to bring managers, executives and staff out of silos to work together. In collaborative workplaces, information is shared organically and everyone takes responsibility for the whole. That’s in contrast to traditional top-down organizational models where a small group of executives controls the flow of information.”1

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You may already have a culture that values collaboration, but collaborative leadership is a model that goes further than what we typically call collaborating. It is a strategic system that expects, enables, and rewards the sharing of power, control, and resources—among all levels in the organization—in order to thrive in today’s marketplace. Kinks are a problem, and collaborative leadership is a solution, but the shift from level/hierarchical-based power and functional/knowledge silos to a collaborative leadership organization can bring different levels of cultural disruption—invariably in a good way. You can assume cultural norms, expectations, behaviors, and relationships will change.

Implementing A Collaborative Leadership Model

Change is not easy, and if you’ve been in the marketplace for more than a minute, you know that we humans tend to avoid difficult change until we no longer have that option. But do you have an option? The complexity of today’s challenges and the speed with which we must meet them is the rationale and motivation for adopting this new model of leadership—which better supports the individuals, teams, and cultures that must nimbly change to continue to succeed and thrive. Oftentimes, leaders believe it is the rank and file that needs to change, but collaborative leadership requires nothing less than an identity shift for established leaders. After investing years of effort and sacrifice to achieve the status and rewards of leadership in a traditional, vertically-organized company, senior leaders today must respond to new and different marketplace imperatives by redefining power, control, and their own success strategies. Leaders, this change starts with you!

How Collaborative Leadership Really Works: A Case Study

A company that had grown by acquisition brought in a new COO to help them drive growth that had been stymied by siloed operational structures and the resulting kinks in the system. In addition to the corporate functions of IT, Quality, and Supply Chain, there were five fully independent business units, each with its own IT, Quality, and Supply Chain processes and tools—and its own Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platform. Even the CRMs were siloed, so cross-selling opportunities were missed, and, in some cases, the business units inadvertently competed against each other for new business. This COO knew that growth and innovation depended on more efficient use of resources and faster process flows. He knew that collaborative leadership would be required among the business units to begin to untangle the kinks and achieve the organization’s goals. The six separate IT teams, the resulting redundancies, and inflated total spend made that department ripe for change, and the shift to collaborative leadership began there. To say that collaborative leadership would be a difficult “sell” to the business unit leaders was an understatement. The COO knew he had to help them move from command and control to a collaborative mindset—in service to a shared purpose. Spoiler alert: asking these proud, autonomous leaders—who have earned their way to the top—to relinquish control, authority, and information met with resistance. Even with his compelling and rational explanations, the COO hit roadblocks at every turn from the leaders of corporate IT and of the business units.

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The Picture Worth (At Least) A Thousand Words

The focus and energy of the initiative shifted a couple of weeks later when the COO presented a powerful case for change. He brought the stakeholders together and unveiled a map—a visual representation of every IT application, platform, and system in use. Duplications, waste, and workarounds were illuminated on a 12- by 8-foot banner depicting their IT universe. The map had a huge impact, making it all too obvious that the current state of IT was untenable. As a result, the first seeds of a collaborative leadership strategy were planted. The leaders realized that their efforts to control their own silos had overwhelmed the organization’s resources and systems. They aligned to create an organization-wide system of technology governance. Governance isn’t typically the first word that comes to mind when we’re thinking about collaboration, is it? Here’s how they relate to each other…

Governance And Collaborative Leadership

Governance is defined as the establishment of policies, and continuous monitoring of their proper implementation, by the members of the governing body [2]. It includes the mechanisms required to balance the powers of the members (with the associated accountability), and their primary duty of enhancing the prosperity and viability of the organization [3] (Note: Italics are the author’s). Similarly, collaborative leaders have been described as able to “view resources as shared instruments of action; clarify the relationship between decisions, rights, accountability and rewards; take time to establish decision paths and a common vocabulary that everyone can comprehend for successful collaborations”; as well as “safeguard the process, facilitate interaction and patiently deal with high levels of frustration”[4]. You can see that governance and collaborative leadership overlap, as they did in this case. This COO did have to start by balancing the business unit leaders’ power and helping them to view resources as shared instruments of action to enhance the prosperity of the organization.

Facilitating The Identity Shift

How did these leaders begin to manage technology resources collaboratively? A cross-functional and multi-level group of stakeholders was formed to create the technology governance strategy to facilitate the shift from autonomous silos of knowledge, resources, and power to a culture of collaborative leadership. As you might expect, the first few meetings involved jockeying for control and heated exchanges about power, priorities, and resource allocation. It was by nature a bit messy, but patience with messiness was a necessary part of the process.

After about a month of weekly meetings, however, the leaders had begun to adjust to their new collaborative “identities.” Concerns about the erosion of their individual organizational power diminished as they saw how the power of the team’s collective experience and wisdom could serve them. Team members said that making decisions in the collaborative leadership method took longer at first, but ultimately were better decisions than they might have made relying only on their own perceptions. During this transition, the governance team members were supported with opportunities to learn to communicate for collaboration. They needed new awareness and new skills to ensure participation, to gather ideas from others, to entertain differing opinions, and to come to an agreement on resource allocation. The governance meetings were an opportunity to learn by doing and were also a warm-up because the mindset of collaborative leadership must be activated and supported throughout all levels of the company if it is going to take root. Leaders, you go first.

Sustaining Collaborative Leadership

In the IT governance project, the focus on working at the leadership level and “silo-busting” was the top priority. This first phase was all about barrier-breaking and managing the interpersonal dynamics of the collaborative leadership strategy. Supporting the top leaderships’ mindset shift and developing the required behaviors and competencies was central to ensuring that leaders would and could model this new type of leadership and drive behavior change throughout the company. Organizations in the transition to collaborative leadership typically begin by preparing top-level leaders in successive phases as the focus shifts to liberating the organization’s collective wisdom. The marketplace is too fast and too complex to wait for senior leaders to receive information, make decisions, and delegate to more junior and front-level employees. Now we need to rapidly disseminate ideas and information and unleash creativity so that the best possible decisions are made, no matter which level makes them—and kinks are the enemy of rapid. The challenge (and fun) in this journey is the work of developing colleagues who have not only the skills, tools, and processes for successful collaborative leadership, but also the mindset and self-awareness to contribute their unique voices and to take ownership of co-creating new ideas, new solutions, and new ways of working together.

A well-defined and comprehensive workforce development strategy includes personal development opportunities to build the required awareness and confidence to not only contribute ideas but to seek out others’ perspectives. A Harvard Business Review article by Herminia Ibarra and Morten T. Hansen reports that collaborative leaders regularly seek a diversity of opinions and ideas among teammates to build strategies and solve problems [5]. As a result, employees are more engaged, feel trusted, and are more likely to take ownership of their work. It’s worth noting that a collaborative leadership model succeeds because it is by definition inclusive and counts on the diversity of perspectives to create the best solutions. As employees learn not only how to contribute, but that their contributions are valued, they become more fully engaged. An April 2017 story by Gallup’s Workplace division noted that “organizations have more success with engagement and improve business performance when they treat employees as stakeholders of their own future and the company's future6.” And who wouldn’t benefit from more fully engaged employees (and leaders)?

The Culture Thing

Sustaining a collaborative leadership strategy depends on an informed and empowered workforce who are aligned with a shared purpose. Because collaborative leadership calls on every level and every member of an organization to participate fully, it doesn’t just bring culture change—it drives a cultural transformation. So if your teams aren’t currently enabled and empowered to contribute to your business improvement strategies, then yes: the behaviors, roles, and relationships that collaborative leadership will bring to the organization will most certainly bring culture change. And remove the kinks! If you want to read much more about the road-tested resources which will help you implement cultural transformation in your organization, download the eBook  Transforming Culture In Larger Organizations.


  1. Collaborative leadership: moving from top-down to team-centric
  2. Governance
  3. David D. Chrislip and Carl E. Larson, Collaborative Leadership: How Citizens and Civic Leaders Can Make a Difference.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  4. Steven Wilson, Collaborative Leadership: it’s good to talk, British Journal of Healthcare Management, July 2013
  5. Are You a Collaborative Leader?
  6. The Right Culture: Not Just About Employee Satisfaction
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