Following the Leader: Creating Your Model for Collaboration

A few weeks ago, I traveled with my husband to his annual planning retreat in the mountains of Virginia. Despite the fact that I wasn’t actually facilitating the meeting, I read through Verne Harnish’s Scaling Up and started to think through what I would do if I were leading their collaborative planning. As I walked along the trails and wondered how their meeting was going, I reflected on his organization’s culture and the companies I’ve worked with and realized that unless this type of collaboration is intentional, it’s not going to happen.

I’ve worked at companies where it’s wasn’t happening. It left the rest of the organization at a loss for priorities. Teams worked hard at their own projects. But without clear vision and focus, it was classic unorganized, local optimization.

In any organization that we belong to, we become accidental ethnographers. We observe those at the top and model their behavior. How do leaders make decisions? How do they deal with conflicting perspectives? How do they communicate outward and downward? We look at these leaders as examples because we want to be recognized in the organization, and imitating the people who have been successful in that culture is likely a good path to follow.

So as a leader, what does that mean for you?

First, look to how the leadership team meets. Are there clear goals for the meeting? What information is brought into it? Is it data-driven or opinion based? Do people know how they are expected to contribute? How many people contribute to the discussion? After the meeting, how is that information shared? Is the communication intentional or ad hoc?

When leaders run great meetings, it creates a model for the rest of the organization to follow.

The second thing to observe is much simpler to be good at: cadence. How often does the leadership team get together to re-evaluate their goals and plans? Are they intentional about coming together or does decision-making occur in random meetings or behind closed doors?

Leadership teams that model a regular cadence of checking-in set the stage for other groups in the organization to reflect on a similar cadence. If the meetings at the top bring in information from the rest of the organization, it creates a pull and regular check-ins that are more likely to occur at the bottom.

If you’re finding yourself in a situation where this skill needs to be learned, start by checking out the below slides from Rachel Weston and Verne Harnish’s Scaling Up.

Last fall, Rachel presented a great session on how leaders can prepare their organizations for great collaborative sessions by intentionally creating cadence. This slide deck provides a starting place of how to develop a rhythm to support collaboration and alignment.

Scaling Up details how to execute focused, collaborative sessions with leadership teams. It’s a guidebook that you’ll go back to again and again, especially as you get closer to those ceremonies like annual planning.

Leaders that master the model of collaboration can have huge impact and be an inspiration in their organizations. Take a moment to think about what a ethnographer would observe at your organization. How would they describe it? Then, write down three aspects of collaboration you personally want to model. By intentionally modeling those attributes, it will spread throughout the organization.

The week after my husband’s offsite, their leadership team went back and shared the results with the whole company. They provided a safe space for questions to be asked and concerns to be raised. Now, what would a ethnographer have written down about that?