Collaborative Leadership and Diversity of Thought : Driving Business Innovation – Hunt Scanlon 2018 State of Industry Report

June 20, 2018 Share this article:

by Stephen Dallamore, AltoPartners Global Chairman and Search Partners International Managing Director

This article was first published in the 2018 Hunt Scanlon State of the Industry Report, June 2018

Stephen Dallamore, global chairman of AltoPartners, describes how collaborative leadership and diversity in the workplace promotes innovation in business. He also shares the seven skills leaders need for effective collaboration today.

Effective collaboration requires leaders to have well-developed and practiced skills. If you want to be an “innovation-ready” organization, then the adoption of innovative behaviours must come first. Innovative organizations are those where people are accessed and challenged to deliver at their highest potential.

With the world rapidly changing around us, high performing and effective leaders should be aware of the new trends and developments impacting the ‘people’ component of their businesses . As global businesses and economies continue to evolve, grow and integrate - and systems and processes become ever more automated and digitized - the people we attract and retain in to our businesses become even more important. Businesses, regardless of their size, are desperate for educated, highly skilled, knowledgeable employees who possess skill sets that will ensure the business remains viable and sustainable into the future.

But, in addition to the all-important ‘do we have the right talent’ question that boards and the C-suite are grappling with, what else should businesses be doing to ensure their long-term sustainability? Shifting social norms and digitisation bring new challenges for businesses, but also new opportunities. While we believe that the right talent possessing the right skills are the foundation for success, we also know that businesses need to continue to innovate to thrive.

Discussions with our clients and our global teams indicate that in these times of great change, competition and uncertainty, a business with no new ideas will fall behind. Businesses need to continue to evolve and be innovative to survive, and tapping in to diversity of thought and skills within all businesses is one of the best ways for businesses to generate new ideas . Great solutions come from simple ideas that have the power to spark major shifts in the business, for example UBER and Airbnb. These are the building blocks needed to deliver sustained innovation. Innovation is not just about doing different or new things, it could also be about doing the same things differently or having a simple idea that disrupts a traditional industry.

The Link Between Innovation, People and Diversity

Undoubtedly one of the failed new rules of today’s economy is that humans are expendable, that their labour – and quite possibly their thinking – should be eliminated as a cost wherever possible. Even in this heavily digitized age, humans are at the heart of the business and seen as the “operating systems” of the business. The challenge is now how to connect and access them in this digital new normal. The companies and leaders who get that right will flourish, they understand that digital isn’t something you do, it is something you become while still making people matter. For any organization to be innovation ready, it needs to embrace the diverse thinking that lives in the human fabric of that organization.

A business that does not have an appreciation for the value of diversity, whether it be culture, opinion or skill, stands the risk of lagging behind in the quality and quantity of ideas it generates. Boards and the C-suite with a lack of diversity will fall into silo thinking. Without robust discussion, leaders won’t challenge each other enough in the boardroom and new ideas won’t be produced. There is positive discomfort that comes from healthy challenging discussions, which in turn fosters a culture of change and innovation. Nokia’s former executive team, for example, was 100% Finnish and had worked together for more than a decade. Many believe this extreme homogeneity explains why the team failed to see the smartphone threat emerging from Silicon Valley.

Diversity of thought, experience and skills is critical on boards today, as it makes the collective board and C-suite stronger and better able to meet the challenges that lie ahead. Today change is the only certainty. Kevin Hall, Managing Partner at AltoPartners Canada / Bluestone Leadership Consulting, points to examples of the leading companies 50 years ago and asks “why are so many of them minor players today?” Particularly Blackberry (RIM), IBM, Digital Equipment, Compaq, Xerox, Kodak, AOL and Wang. All were leaders or 2nd in their markets. “Where are they now (and why)?” Google, Apple and Amazon are great examples of companies reinventing themselves. The challenge for many boards is how to harness the “diversity of thinking” within the board, and ensure it impacts the strategy going forward.

Organizations with diversity of thought have exceptionally strong Chairs and collaborative leadership teams. It is these Chairs who are insightful and confident enough to drive the change and start by recruiting “non-traditional” board members to their organization. Gender, race and nationality are not the only kinds of diversity to be aware of. Age, experience and skills are also important. For this to be a success, it can’t be a token exercise or appointment. It needs to be embraced by the board and organization, with a clear and well understood process for integration and transition. On-going value needs to be identified, quantified and embraced. In an Indian context, Sonal Agrawal, AltoPartners Founding Partner and Global Operating Committee Member; Accord | India Managing Partner and AESC Global Board Member, points to an increased number of requests for board members who understand millennials, and for those who are conversant with the digital economy. Similarly in the USA, Veronica J. Biggins, Managing Director AltoPartners USA / Diversified Search, sees younger candidates nominated to the boards to advise companies on the impact of technology and digital disruption, with focus on understanding social media and online threats. Their inclusion alters the long term strategic view of a board.

Diverse teams produce better results, provided they are well led. The ability to bring people together from different backgrounds, disciplines, cultures and generations and leverage all they have to offer, is a necessity for leaders. This requires reinventing their talent strategies and building strong connections across and outside the organization. Building coalitions and working collaboratively becomes more important as the business grows and the leader takes on more and more responsibility. Collaboration is no longer a nice to have, but increasingly a leadership requirement needed to get results.

Collaborative Leadership Promotes Innovation

In a world of partnerships, complex supply chains, outsourced working models and complex organizational structures, leaders need to be able to deliver results by working across organizational boundaries. Perhaps in the not too distant future it may also involve people collaborating with some form of artificial intelligence.

Key outcomes of leaders who promote collaboration include:

  • Innovation - Creating opportunities for new thinking, ideas and ultimately business innovations
  • Amplification of the business’s ‘employer brand’ status – Creating an environment which is seen to encourage and value team work, collaboration and diversity of thought maintains the attractiveness of the business as a place to work
  • Profitability and long-term business sustainability – the evidence exists that innovative businesses who harness diversity of thought will face the challenges in the market, adapt and to continue to succeed.

Fostering an environment and culture of collaboration takes continuous effort from the leadership team and asks the question “What sort of skills should business leaders (the C-Suite, heads of functions etc) possess to deliver effective collaboration?”

The 7 Skills Leaders Need for Effective Collaboration

According to global research conducted across the AltoPartners alliance, Richard Sterling, AltoPartners Australia Managing Partner ranks the 7 skills needed by leaders to promote and drive collaboration in the workplace.

  1. Establishing frameworks for collaboration and then getting on with it
  2. Balance of big picture thinking and power of execution
  3. Consulting with teams and stakeholders
  4. Direct communications
  5. Building bridges across key functions
  6. Acceptance or tolerance
  7. Understanding the data and technology required

While each business has unique needs and each leader’s style of collaboration will place different emphasis on the importance of the 7 skills listed above, our global team agree that in order for leaders to effectively navigate diversity and different business environments, leaders need to possess the following key skills:

  1. Interpersonal skills to understand and deal with the sensitivity of multi-cultural differences and the impact these have on team dynamics;
  2. Ability to think globally (best practice and trends) but then to adapt and implement for local nuances (culture, behaviour and language)
  3. Skills development and enhancement of juniors (succession planning)
  4. Accountable for what they do
  5. Commitment and passion
  6. Decision making
  7. Self-awareness and emotional intelligence
  8. Wisdom and humility
  9. Flexibility and adaptiveness
  10. Be an active corporate citizen, not a bystander

Being a dynamic, collaborative leader involves much more than just telling people what to do. Effective collaboration requires leaders to have well-developed and practiced skills. If you want to be an “innovation ready” organization, then the adoption of innovative behaviours must come first. Innovative organizations are those where people are accessed and challenged to deliver at their highest potential. Diversity of thought is valued and inspiring leaders foster environments where crossfunctional collaboration is the business norm. For modern businesses to thrive, leaders need to be aware of trends, understand human behaviour and embrace the value of diverse perspectives.