It’s not enough for leaders to spot collaborative opportunities and attract the best talent to them. They must also set the tone by being good collaborators themselves. All too often, efforts to collaborate in the middle are sabotaged by political games and turf battles higher up in the organization. Consider that Microsoft, according to a former company executive writing in the New York Times last year, developed a viable tablet computer more than a decade ago but failed to preempt Apple’s smash hit because competing Microsoft divisions conspired to kill the project.
Part of the problem is that many leadership teams, composed of the CEO and his or her direct reports, actually don’t operate as teams. Each member runs his or her own region, function, or product or service category, without much responsibility — or incentive — for aligning the organization’s various projects and operations into a coherent whole.
At Brazil’s Natura Cosméticos, CEO Alessandro Carlucci has instituted a comprehensive ‘engagement process’ that promotes a collaborative mind-set at all levels and has helped the firm win a top spot on Fortune’s list of best companies for leaders. The process was implemented after Natura’s highly successful IPO in 2004, when competing agendas among the senior managers began to threaten the company’s prospects. Carlucci decided he needed to reorganize the executive committee to unify its members around common goals and stop the power struggles. He asked the members of the top team to make a commitment to self-development as part of their stewardship of the company.
Each executive embarked on a ‘personal journey’ with an external coach, who met with everyone individually and with the team as a group. “It is a different type of coaching,” Carlucci explains. “It’s not just talking to your boss or subordinates but talking about a person’s life history, with their families; it is more holistic, broader, integrating all the different roles of a human being.”
Roberto Pedote, Natura’s senior vice president for finance, IT, and legal affairs, adds: “I think that the main point is that we are making ourselves vulnerable, showing that we are not supermen, that we have failures; that we are afraid of some things and we don’t have all the answers.”
Since the engagement process was adopted, Natura’s executives have become much better at teaming up on efforts to improve the business, which grew by 21% in 2010. The collaborative mind-set at the top has cascaded down to the rest of the organization, and the process has been rolled out to all the company’s managers.
If leaders are to encourage more innovation through partnerships across sectors and with suppliers, customers, and consumers, they need to stop relying heavily on short-term performance indicators. According to the psychologist Carol Dweck, people are driven to do tasks by either performance or learning goals. When performance goals dominate an environment, people are motivated to show others that they have a valued attribute, such as intelligence or leadership. When learning goals dominate, they are motivated to develop the attribute. Performance goals, she finds, induce people to favor tasks that will make them look good over tasks that will help them learn. A shift toward learning goals will make managers more open to exploring opportunities to acquire knowledge from others.
At HCL, CEO Vineet Nayar demonstrated his commitment to collaboration by adopting a radically different 360-degree evaluation for his top managers — one that invited a wide range of employees to weigh in. Although the company had done 360-degree reviews before, each manager had been assessed by a relatively small number of people, mostly within the manager’s immediate span of control. As Nayar recalls in his book Employees First, Customers Second (Harvard Business Review Press, 2010), “most of the respondents operated within the same area as the person they were evaluating. This reinforced the boundaries between the parts of the pyramid. But we were trying to change all that. We wanted to encourage people to operate across these boundaries.” Nayar set the tone by posting his own 360 degree evaluation on the web. Once executives got used to the new transparency, the 360-degree reviews were expanded to a broader group. A new feature, ‘Happy Feet’, was added, allowing all employees whom a manager might affect or influence to evaluate that manager — regardless of their reporting relationship.
Depoliticizing senior management so that executives are rewarded for collaborating rather than promoting their individual agendas is an absolute essential. At Reckitt Benckeiser, there’s little tolerance for politics. Says Bart Becht: “We go out of our way to make sure that politics get eradicated, because I think they’re very bad for an organization. I think they’re poison, to be honest with you.” Becht’s direct, no-nonsense style and the expectation that people should openly disagree with one another in meetings also help keep politics to a minimum, allowing real teamwork to take hold.