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The Future of Work: the Art of Collaborative Leadership

The way we work is shifting. We see that in subtle ways and other times in not so subtle ways.  Even traditional companies like Deloitte are investing in people development, realizing that it is the best resource they have to stay ahead of the curve. Those with a real competitive advantage intuitively understand innovation and creativity as essential to meeting market demands and crucial in facing our collective sustainability challenges.  The future of work as we know it is shifting from an outdated directive approach toward collaborative frameworks that inspire us to engage in new and different ways with our work and with each other.

This elusive concept has always intrigued and intimidated me, so I began to question my own assumptions I held about collaboration.  One of my current projects has given me an opportunity to explore and experience my own leadership in a collaborative environment.  For the last six months, I have been co-designing and co-hosting the Women & Power Leadership Forum, using collaborative processes based on Art of Hosting principles. Together with Kathy Jourdain (an experienced steward in the work of Art of Hosting), whom I thank from the bottom of my heart for embodying collaborative leadership so beautifully and supporting my discovery of this, as well as a wonderful hosting team, this experience has provided rich learning for all of us in exploring what it means to be collaborative and uncovering the traits required to cultivate it.

Decision by Consensus?

One of the big beliefs I made up about collaborative work was that one most come to decisions by consensus; if there were any outliers, you could not forge ahead. This seemed an exhaustive and almost impossible task when you think about how hard it is to get a group of people to agree on anything. Just look at what happened with the Occupy Movement  - decision by consensus just doesn't work especially when you're talking about scalability. To my relief, I discovered making the final decision wasn't as crucial as was the process in making the decision.  Team members must have a chance to voice their opinion through open and honest dialogue, and everyone must have an opportunity to explore the issue together. This process is integral to collaborative decision making (even though that term seems like an oxymoron!). Once you've gone through this exercise, themes and patterns emerge, and through collective sensing, a solution or decision emerges. Not surprisingly, the solution or idea is often better than what one person could have come up with just by themselves.

Leaning In vs. Leaning Out

Another assumption I held was that a strong vision was enough to inspire collaboration. Turns out, it's not enough. As leaders, we assume that leading means doing it all.  For many of us, fear of failing and embarrassment have us hanging on to control. We take on more than we should, we step on toes, and we micro-manage without meaning to.  Not surprisingly, the signal this sends is that "she's got it covered." Women tend to do this to a fault - we take on more than we can chew because we are good multi-taskers and want to prove our value, so we take it all on and in doing so, prevent others from stepping in. This is where the now proverbial "leaning in" approach is NOT effective. By "leaning out" as leaders, we give our people a chance to lean in. This creates an opportunity for them to take responsibility for the tasks at hand, to step in and contribute more fully and engages them in a way where their best ideas and input are brought forth. For perfectionists and control freaks like me, this can be one of the biggest challenges to overcome. Learning to let go and trust others is crucial to create the space for brilliance to shine.  Finding the balance is where this practice becomes an art form.

Vulnerability as Strength

The single most significant piece of learning for me has been around understanding how vulnerability is the key to success in any collaborative process. We've got it all wrong in our work ethos. We believe vulnerability is a weakness. We are afraid to admit we don't have the answer for fear of being seen as incompetent. Our need to prove our worth and value and the fear of shame all leads to creating separation.  What I have found over and over again in my  leadership journey is that when I am wiling to be vulnerable, share my true feelings no matter how embarrassing or weak I may be perceived, when I am able to truly listen to feedback and be willing to receive it without taking it personally, these acts are powerful beyond measure. This is a secret superpower that everyone possesses, but not everyone has the courage to enact.  It takes a willingness to fail and learn from your mistakes, to risk the shame that comes along with it.   But the rewards are bountiful. It's the quickest route to creating trust in any relationship or group process. It creates an environment where others feel able to open up and share their feelings, stimulating input, ideas, and solutions.  It allows us to be human, and realize that we are all in this together. It opens up our hearts and reminds us that it's not about the bottom line, or even the next big idea. It's about being in relationship; the learning and experiences that show us who we truly are.


I would not have had the chance to be in this learning process if it weren't for some pretty spectacular women.  I'm humbled by the experience of working in collaboration with women who have volunteered their time and energy for an idea I am deeply passionate about.  As challenging as it is at times for me, they always hold me up to my highest potential, give me honest feedback, defend me and believe in me.  Sometimes the best learning comes when others are courageous enough to voice their truth. I'm grateful for the opportunity to work with women who have the capacity to do that in a supportive way.  Learning to give credit and acknowledging your partners and team mates goes without saying, yet how many times do we just breeze over that?  Being humble, setting your ego aside, and letting go of the need to shine are unique aspects of collaborative leadership which are hard to learn, and hard to teach. For many of us, this is counter-intuitive to the competitive nature of business. But it's an integral part of how we operate as human beings and it's the key to collective success.

The Outcome

The proof is in the pudding they say. You might be wondering how this collaborative process worked out in the end.  We're still in the middle of it, yet what I can report is that we are successfully co-creating a first-time event which is almost nearly sold out (we still have a month to go), there is a buzz about it in Silicon Valley and support from far and wide.  As hosts, we will continue to practice these processes on the day of our event, as we co-host a day of deep dialogue for the multi-generational women leaders who will participate that day. We aren't attached to any outcomes. What we do know, however, is that our attendees will walk away having experienced collaborative process and leadership. And that alone will be a work of art.


The Unique Qualities of a Self-Made Billionaire

It’s not every day you get the chance to hear someone like Sir Richard Branson speak in the flesh.  I recently had the rare opportunity when I found myself by chance at the National Achievers Congress in London, where the likes of Anthony Robbins, Lord Allen Sugar and others taught their personal secrets to becoming ridiculously rich.  You can imagine how it might have felt to be in a room with 8000 other motivated individuals, on the edge of their seats, listening to every word these men had to say.  I was on the edge of mine when it finally came time to hear Sir Richard interviewed by Michael Burke, as part of the closing keynote to the conference.

As I listened to Sir Richard speak about the qualities which led him to his virtually multi-billion dollar empire, I was struck by the difference in his tone compared to the other presenters – most of whom seemed driven and motivated to make as much money as humanely possible by the sheer need to overcome financial hardships.   When asked what the single characteristic that has made him what he is, he replied: “I love people, and I was brought up by my parents to look to the best in people,” which he went on to say was one of the most important attributes of a successful leader. “Looking for the best in people, praising people….people flourish. “If you can build a great team of people around you, if they believe in the difference you’re trying to make, you can build a great company.”

And he has – starting with Virgin Records, and now with over 400 companies and $4.2 billion dollars in net worth, Sir Richard Branson has done what few people dare to even dream. In a recent article in Entrepeneur Magazine, he talks about how empowering young talent, even if they have little experience, is the way to grow a company.  "Virgin's ability to grow and diversify successfully was set in the company's early days, with my learning how to delegate and let go. When employees tell you about their good ideas for the business, don't limit your response.... ask those people to lead their projects and take responsibility for them. From those experiences, they will then have built the confidence to take on more and you can take a further step back."

So how does a regular, middle class boy from the countryside of Surrey, who is in fact dyslexic and failed maths in school, get to be one of the most successful billionaires of our time?

“From a very young age I wanted to create something and make a difference.”  This seems to be the key driving force behind everything Branson has created, with the idea of taking something and making it better.  Take Virgin Airlines for instance –an airline that not only offers quality service but something unique, like video screens in the backs of chairs for entertainment.  This idea didn’t come cheaply, but through creative partnerships and financing, Branson was able to make his vision a reality which singlehandedly raised the quality standards for the entire airline industry.

Creativity goes hand in hand with being nimble and flexible, holding the big vision and maintaining foresight to deal with financial challenges. Surviving three recessions as well as 9/11 and still managing to come out on top requires all those things. To keep Virgin Atlantic afloat during the downturn of the airline industry, he was forced to sell some assets to retain liquidity and had to let go a number of employees as a short-term solution.  But there was a caveat:  a promise to re-hire the staff that was let go the moment things were fixed.  Within 12 months, everyone was rehired.  How would you have liked to be one of those people working for Richard Branson at that time?

But Sir Richard has always been unconventional, dabbling in completely different industries, from music, to airlines, to health and fitness….and even condoms, although not using the Virgin brand itself for that one.  He describes Virgin as a “lifestyle” brand, and defends his diverse portfolio of businesses as his love for learning new things and being curious about how things work. 

Of course no billionaire can survive without having a sense of humor, and Branson has that too…dressing up in drag as a bride when he had the bright idea of launching “Virgin Brides.”  That one didn’t make the final cut.

Having reached this much success and having a private island to enjoy it all from doesn’t keep Branson from reaching for more.  His next big idea: Virgin Galactic – the first commercial shuttle into space will be ready to launch in close to 15 months. I know I’m waiting for the price of that ticket to come down from the initial price of $200K– which Branson believes will happen over time, making it completely affordable for regular people to take a ride into space.

And he continues to make a difference – with Virgin Unite working with children in third world countries, and a group called the “Elders” made up of Nelson Mandela and others whose main purpose is to stop conflicts from emerging in hot areas in the world.   All this is driven by Branson’s ability to stay human amongst his great wealth and his commitment to make the world a better place.

Now imagine if ALL business leaders were like Sir Richard Branson? What do you think would be different in the economy and in the world today if we ALL cared about our employees, treated them like our own, and were dedicated to having our teams flourish and thrive?  What would be different if empathy, compassion, and humility were the main values in business today?

Human business IS the business of tomorrow.  And Sir Richard Branson embodies just that.  Hat’s off Sir.