Now that I have been in the social sector for nearly 15 years, I have often heard the value of sharing but I find the reality of collaboration is less than optimized. There are a lot of external conversations about the importance of working together, but until leaders internalize the benefits, it will fall short of its true potential. Collaboration is hard for anyone to do, especially leaders.
In my January blog, I wrote about the critical leadership skill of a mindset shift toward openness, iteration, evolution. I offered the suggestion to start by asking one new tough question about results. Then, relentlessly seek the answer from as many people as you can engage. This questioning requires an attitude that admits to peers that you do not yet have all the answers or openness to the possibility that your answer could be improved upon. In considering this topic of connecting, collaborating, sharing, I am left wondering, is it the opposite of ego?
I do not think it necessary let alone possible to check our natural sense of self and confidence at the door, but I do think to truly become change-agents, we need our internal compass set at “open to learning”. To do that effectively, we need to accept that in this complex world of social change, we cannot possibly have all the answers ourselves. We live in the information age, yet we all get stuck and wish we had more or better information to make educated decisions.
We need to constantly strive to remain open to client and staff feedback, research the wheels created before ours, and gather the knowledge that allows for data-informed action. Although there are some constants in the social sector, environmental norms are in constant flux. Informed adaptation is the way for organizations and therefore clients, to thrive.
So, taking my own advice, upon reflection I realized that I gleaned this concept from several sources and people including, a former client who expressed “You’ve always been really great at unsticking my thinking. Any chance we could connect for 30 minutes in the next week or so?”, my yoga instructor, Jim Collins Good to Great, several articles from the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and even my son’s piano teacher.
Consider the great conceptual plan you had, which fell flat due to an untimely key staff change; an amazing strategy that can’t be implemented due to a state budget impasse; a brilliant new program roll-out that is postponed based on an operational issue.
If we are in the mindset of gathering information, developing relationships, filtering for importance and truly learning, we can adapt much more easily. When we have networks to collaborate with, trusted resources and people to turn to, we can achieve much more than if we operate in a vacuum. Best to end our soap box ideas with the simple yet powerful line, “So, what do you think?”
So what is informed adaptation? My working definition is “a methodical habit of taking information from various sources in, recognizing and interpreting the intersections, and drawing informed conclusions.” It requires us to have a “connectors” mindset.
A key example on a more systemic level is the academic innovation of nonprofit management courses and degree programs. They require the influx of inter-disciplinary approaches – combining business school management classes with social science research, political science, and human-centered design. This confluence of knowledge necessitates traversing the traditional silos of academia. It makes sense in a world where broad understanding of complexity readies us for collective efforts, which hopefully result in greater impact.
What we haven’t fully tapped are the hidden jewels that lay beyond the strategic approaches – the people behind these successes. We need to understand what allows real leaders to succeed.
When we published the Performance Imperative, there were a group of Leap Ambassadors (the collective authors) who argued that the first pillar, “Courageous, adaptive executive and board leadership”, should actually be an entryway to the other six pillars, rather than an equal part of the seven total pillars to high performance. We argued that leadership provided the gateway to pass through before access to high performance was possible. We titled this pillar and discussed the importance of responsibility, stewardship, accountability, clarity, learning, informed decision-making and external resource development. We did not specifically call-out the idea I am proposing here – connecting. But, I think it appears as a thread throughout the document and certainly in this bullet: “Executives and boards are humble enough to seek and act on feedback on their own performance and that of their organization. Even the highest of high performers know that they haven’t figured it all out and acknowledge that they still have a lot of work to do.”
I am suggesting that solid leadership requires a "connector mind-set". That cultivating relationships by thinking outside of silos is an important skill. So how do we get there?
In working with a client recently, I noticed the limitations of very smart professionals, based on their inadequate knowledge of the field beyond their specific agency. We need to get out of our echo-chambers and understand that we are stronger, better, smarter, and more effective, when we access, learn, expand, and incorporate varying inputs - we create stronger new possibilities.
In the Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell points to the Yiddish word for Maven and defines it as “one who accumulates knowledge”. Diverse sources of information, mixed with our own experience become wisdom, and we all know that knowledge is power.
I leave you with the simple words of a woman I have much respect for in my community: “one idea plus another idea creates a greater idea.”
I encourage us all to reach beyond our own program or organization and learn from another initiative in the broader programmatic space/field/ecosystem. I feel inspired by the idea that we are all connected – all we need to do is be willing to open ourselves to learning and to connecting the dots into a larger whole.