Islands Are For Vacations Not For Leaders

In our latest leadership report, we discuss strategies for leaders to improve and model collaboration with their teams.

Islands Are For Vacations Not For Leaders

Remember the movie Castaway? Tom Hanks’ character was so profoundly alone that he created connection with a volleyball (Wilson) to survive. The same is true in the journey toward organizational success. The saying “no one is an island” resonates more profoundly at the senior leadership level than anywhere else. Senior leaders increasingly need to demonstrate an ability to leverage colleague expertise, strengths, and perspectives because at that level, long-term success as a “lone wolf” type leader is highly unlikely in this complex world.

There may be those of you who read the above and think “that’s nice but it’s not realistic” or perhaps the theme song to the program “Succession” is ringing in your ears? As a former HR leader, I can attest to the fact that, yes, there are some incredibly competitive, self-serving, and downright narcissistic senior leaders out there. But what I’ve also noticed is that they don’t typically last too long in any given role or organization. They create Tasmanian Devil-like havoc in the organization leaving a swath of chaos, burn out some wonderful people and then move on to another department or other organization.

This blog post is not written for the Tasmanian Devils, it’s written for those who know that different is possible and not only possible but essential in this incredibly complex world.

The Collaboration Imperative

It’s a simple fact, decisions at a senior leadership level are often incredibly complex. There are a multitude of competing commitments and intersecting demands. Executive-level decisioning often requires breadth of vision, and an understanding of the short and long-term consequences.

It is next to impossible to have all the answers. While AI might be a helpful crutch, currently at best it’s a moderately skilled intern that may hallucinate facts and figures. It can’t take the place of a sophisticated senior colleague who knows that “this person has a lot at stake in this decision” and “that person was really triggered last time and needs to be involved in that decision”. At a senior level, collaboration is not merely beneficial; it’s essential to navigating the nuances of all the humans involved in any given decision.

While peers are important, what’s even more important is collaboration with those closer to the actual action. Back in 1989 Sidney Yoshida coined the phrase “Iceberg of Ignorance”. It’s a theory that posits that senior leaders are only aware of about 4% of the known issues in an organization, leaders of leaders might know 9%, but it’s the front-line leaders and individual contributors that really understand “how the sausage is made” with at least 74% awareness of the problems.

If you’re not tapping into the wisdom and expertise of peers, direct reports and skip levels one or two times then you are unfortunately operating with a blindfold on and risking a major derailment.

Here are five ways senior leaders can create stronger collaborative connection:

  1. Fail forward – Encourage an environment where ideas and concerns can be openly shared without fear of retribution. This involves regular and structured meetings where not just successes, but challenges and failures are discussed, promoting a learning culture. Make it a standard where the most senior leader shares their “fail” and the resultant learning first.
  2. Build your trusted network – The best leaders have a mental rolodex of peer connections outside of their functional space that they can go to for advice, counsel, advocacy, validation and occasionally venting. This opening of their own mental aperture allows them to move things forward with greater speed and quality.
  3. Get a reverse mentor – Frontline employees are best situated to know the experience of the customers, to understand the frustrations with challenging systems and processes and provide valuable feedback on the day-to-day impact of decisions made in the c-suite. Consider how you can cultivate a trusted sounding board of front-line employees who can give you the real scoop on what life is really like.
  4. Sponsor grassroots innovation – Innovation programs can play a vital role in fostering a culture of continuous improvement. They enable frontline employees to step beyond their immediate responsibilities, encouraging them to think critically and propose innovative solutions. Maybe it’s a hackathon or something akin to GEs Work-out methodology but look to consciously create spaces for frontline employees to take risks, provide ideas and be involved in the solutions.
  5. Recognize and reward collaborative effort – Establish systems that recognize not just individual achievement but also collective successes. Highlighting instances where collaborative efforts led to positive outcomes can reinforce the value of teamwork.

When senior leaders tap into the wisdom and insight of their peers and even better, those closer to the action, they can drive more innovative solutions, improved risk management, and a stronger alignment towards the organization’s goals. Success is a collective endeavor and everyone, regardless of their position, needs support to achieve greatness.

Reach out to talk to us if you’re curious to learn more about how to actively cultivate connection and collaboration with peer groups or with those front-line leaders who are closer to the real action.



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