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Dan Hammond


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The collaborative leader


In the first of a four-part series, Dan Hammond looks at leadership in a new light.

Organisations are the problem

Charlie O'Connor stumbled upon collaboration in a place where stumbling could be life-threatening. In 1994, Charlie was a liaison officer with the UN Protection Force in Bosnia. Part of his task was to negotiate the settlement of the Muslim-Croat peace accord at a local level. Based in Travnik on the frontline of a war that had raged for three years, that objective certainly puts most 'to do' lists into perspective. 
Charlie will still tell you that this was a plum job. He arranged many meetings between the two sides each with clear outcomes and nicely printed agendas. The problem was that in three months nothing actually happened.
Charlie's saviour was a UN translator. A former professor of English at Sarajevo University, she made a simple suggestion: stop trying so hard. "Arrange the meetings and just let it happen," she said. In this way, Charlie learnt that to get things done he had to set up the conditions where others could succeed and, in his words "sit quietly with a coffee and a blue hat and not get in the way." For someone who was used to "being in command and giving orders" this was a new way of working. But things started to happen to bring peace and prosperity to the region. Those things are still happening today.
"If organisations are to change quickly then we need a way of operating that does not rely on the hierarchy but enables the people at the front line to drive change inside the organisation."
For this short series on collaboration, I interviewed Charlie O'Connor who is now a Director at LIW, a global leadership consultancy. He has spent the last 10 years working in large corporations, combining the latest research with practical experience to help leaders to work together and 'get things done that would not otherwise get done.'
"The problem with collaboration is the organisations we work in," says O'Connor. "They look formal, hierarchical, but collaboration doesn't work that way."
It was Pritchett who warned us that if the rate of change inside an organisation is less than the rate outside, then disaster is inevitable. If organisations are to change quickly then we need a way of operating that does not rely on the hierarchy but enables the people at the front line (where the external change is most evident) to drive change inside the organisation. In O'Connor's words: "Hierarchical organisations are a 20th Century solution to a 21st Century problem."
"We need some structure and some control, for sure,' says O'Connor. "You need manageable groups to specialise, focus and build expertise. You need control to manage risk and support accountability and alignment. The matrix system seems to be the best way to achieve this at the moment in a way that recognises the multi-stakeholder world we live in. These can still be cumbersome though, so the trick is for organisations to encourage and enable their people to bypass the formal structures to get things done."
Most organisations continue to take the opposite approach, trying to create enough rules to cover every eventuality. The problem is that things are changing so quickly that the rule book will be obsolete almost immediately. "Instead of 1000 rules, have one behaviour, ' says O'Connor. "And that behaviour is leadership."
The key for leaders, then, is to have the courage to distribute leadership throughout the organisation, not to keep it as the preserve of the few. At the heart of this is a simple idea that turns traditional leadership thinking on its head: leaders are there to create the conditions for success for others, not to get people to do what they say. This is surprising to the many leaders who have bought books on persuasion and executive presence. But as soon as this belief is shared and practiced in organisations, then collaboration can take place.
"The key for leaders is to have the courage to distribute leadership throughout the organisation, not to keep it as the preserve of the few."
That will mean organisations 'letting go to get a better grip' much as Charlie did - with the help of an English professor - in Bosnia.
The practical first step for a collaborative leader is to constantly ask themselves how they can create the conditions for other people's success and seek feedback on how effective they are at doing this. They can then help those people to do the same with others around them.
Charlie learnt about collaboration in a collaborative way too: he had built relationships with people around him so that they would actually support him. He shared clarity about what he was trying to achieve, and why, so that anyone could contribute. He also had the personal humility to learn from this unlikely source. The next three articles will look at these elements of collaboration.
Dan Hammond is a managing consultant at global leadership consultancy, LIW

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Dan Hammond

Managing Consultant

Read more from Dan Hammond

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