The Covid pandemic brought about a massive shift in global society, with impacts extending far beyond medical policy and healthcare. Within business undoubtedly the greatest impact was the accelerated adoption of remote working. By necessity, business leadership has also evolved to meet the demands of the post-Covid work environment.
Although there are some exceptions, most businesses now offer remote or hybrid working, especially in desk-based roles such as coding and consulting. A consequence of this is the office environment has become a vastly different experience; shared interactions and communications online are now just as important as the in-person meetings. In turn, this has changed what management best practice looks like.
“Our research shows a massive trend toward what we call ‘human-centered leadership,’ essentially forcing leaders to be more flexible, empathetic, forgiving, and open minded to people’s individual needs,” says industry analyst Josh Bersin.
Traditional management techniques, which are often founded upon office-based ideals, are no longer viable, if in-person meetings form only part of the interactions. Instead, business leaders need to look at collaborative working techniques in order to effectively lead their teams. “The old way of leadership and management is dead,” says Alchemy Labs founder Alastair Gill. “We have to move away from the Taylorism scientific management to one which is more emergent and more human.”
The primacy of clarity
Collaborative leadership is a management strategy that extolls an integrated mindset within the organization. It evolves from the traditional ‘them-and-us’ mentality to become one that provides a more unified ideal of what it means to work within the organization.
Leading collaboratively can also effectively ‘flatten’ the management structure of an organization, shifting from the typically pyramid-shaped management schemes to one where there are fewer tiers between senior management and the workforce. Instead of relying on typical command and control, communication and teamwork become essential to an effective collaborative leadership strategy.
One of the key challenges to collaborative leadership in the current business environment is coordinating and communicating with a distributed workforce. Since much of how we communicate is non-verbal, from our posture and facial expressions to the tone of our voice, some of this non-verbal context can be lost when speaking on phone or video conferencing, or when written in an email or instant message.
“If you're working purely remotely, you need to be even clearer,” explains Gill. “It’s like a long-distance relationship: you've got to work a bit harder at it, because you're not picking up all those clues from people in the office, that body language is more of an asynchronous relationship.”
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In order to effectively share their message, business leaders need to be more transparent in how they speak to others and what they speak about. There needs to be greater communication between leaders and their employees, which includes business leaders listening to what their employees have to say.
Quite often, employees will have an understanding of the day-to-day operations of an organization that those in upper management may not be aware of, simply because they don’t have that perspective. Collaborative leadership leverages these insights into a cohesive business strategy, allowing organizations to remain viable within a competitive industry by ensuring they can make intelligence-led decisions.
“We talk with many senior HR leaders and we typically find that ‘being connected to other leaders’ and ‘understanding all areas of the business’ are key factors in high performing leaders,” explains Bersin. “As far as the team management goes, most agree that letting people speak up, give feedback, and continuously give suggestions are hallmarks of strong leadership in business today.”
More than lip service
With interest in collaborative leadership growing, it has started to become something of a buzz phrase. This in turn has led to some organizations mistakenly believing they are collaborative when they are not. Collaborative working is about integration and working together in unison towards a common goal, rather than departments simply completing their assigned task before forwarding the project to another.
The key to an effective collaborative leadership strategy is a clarity of vision that is shared throughout an organization, such that everyone understands how individuals operate. Underpinning this is the technical challenge of ensuring that there is an appropriate communications infrastructure in place, including the online platforms for exchanging ideas and sharing information.
These online platforms can be anything from video conferencing and messaging tools allowing employees to communicate with each other, to file-sharing platforms and intranets for allowing employees to seamlessly share information.
The structure and culture necessitated by collaborative leadership are easier to achieve for a smaller emerging company, such as a business start-up. Larger established organizations often have a management structure that has become embedded, which can lead to resistance to change. Although these challenges are not insurmountable, they do add additional hurdles that will need to be overcome in order to fully commit to collaborative leadership.
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“When you are suddenly changing from a top-down structure to more of a flat-base structure; the bigger the company, the harder it is to get that put in, because you're retrospectively putting it in and trying to change people's behaviors that have been indoctrinated by the company,” says Airpal marketing director Polly Arrowsmith.
Since the rapid change in modern business practices necessitated by the Covid pandemic, business management needs to evolve into the collaborative leadership model or they risk losing their competitive edge. The distributed workforce created by remote and hybrid working necessitates investing in communication platforms, which enable teams to seamlessly collaborate. However, in order for it to be effective, this needs to be management led, and that requires them listening to what the workforce have to say.
“Collaborative leadership is when you open it up for everybody,” says Arrowsmith. “It's very organic and information-sharing, coming out of different teams and cross-pollinating. It's also healthier as a company, because everybody's got ownership of the outcome.”
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