William Buist, and Amanda Vickers argue that collaboration lies at the very heart of modern business acumen
In the distant past there were those in companies with strategic roles who set policy, and those who implemented it. Exercising good business skills was mostly a matter of following direction. Most learning was focused on the knowledge and capabilities people needed to develop to progress in their careers and achieve better business results. Some forward-looking companies developed the soft skills people needed to achieve success. Learning took place on courses with a trainer who imparted wisdom and, when done well, drew out learning from within the group.
Times have changed. Employees want more development as they recognise its importance in career progression, and so has the structure of business. New skills and different competencies are needed. People need to be agile and take ownership for their learning to be truly successful. New technologies increasingly provide new approaches to doing business and, inevitably, this means new opportunities for learning using technology too.
However, the nature of business has changed, and the idea of what constitutes a business skill has changed with it.
There are notable differences in business itself: increased globalisation, technological change, increasingly demanding customer expectations, the need to outpace competitors, to innovate and drive greater efficiency. These are often seen as the top concerns. Many businesses are lean, often smaller, more specialised, yet deeply networked. Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead’s front man, said: “It’s not good enough to be the best of the best; you have to be the only one who does what you do.” To do that means specialising, and becoming the ‘go-to’ organisation for your products or services from anywhere on the globe.
Where do today’s leaders go to develop these valuable new skills? There are many ways they can learn. They can learn on in-house courses, by discussing issues with colleagues or they can attend a virtual seminar. These are all crucial opportunities to acquire the skills they need.
Imagine the leaders in your business also having access to a small network of four or five ‘mentors/coaches’ they trust that they can bounce ideas off and make commitments to – each person adding to the whole synergistically. These participants learn not just from discussing their own situation but also from everyone else in their cohort. This approach not only provides invaluable insight and learning to practical problems they experience, but also crucial and relevant development that will accelerate their progress in achieving career and business goals. By collaborating with peers from outside or inside their organisation they will quickly learn from each other and gain practical and fresh ideas they can implement immediately.
As many businesses of all sizes operate internationally or even globally setting up internal networks that meet to learn virtually can also help encourage better understanding of cultural differences and encourage better co-operation and collaboration.
So, what kinds of challenges will leaders and managers face that would benefit from learning in this way? They will come in many forms and touch upon every area such as finance, recruitment, cultural diversity, market presence, leadership, strategy, operations and more. All leaders have to adapt to a new way of working. This means they need to be constantly learning, developing and adapting with agility and effective leadership in a fast moving and increasingly complex environment. Here are just a few skills that look very different from those needed a few decades ago that will benefit from this approach to learning.
While business leaders need to have a sense of clarity about the direction their business is heading, the way that employees are actually led is changing very quickly and it looks completely different in remarkable, successful businesses from their averagely-performing peers.
Successful leaders will present a vision to their employees, customers and shareholders of a goal delivered with honesty and integrity, insight and courage, and use a sharing collaborative, valuing spirit that embraces everyone.
They need to respond to, effect and affect change within their company, and more widely within the business world in general. Employees need to be presented with opportunities to be creative and have their thoughts and opinions truly heard, to think as well as to do, with drive and energy.
To achieve this they need to have strong communication and listening skills and exude empathy, and genuine interest in the issues their colleagues face. They need to be sponges, soaking up new information, learning and sharing, developing and supporting others, as well as setting policy and communicating. They need to collaborate and engage with people inside and outside of their organisations – face-to-face and through social media. They will present their vision to the world and align with the values and hopes of all the team. The most effective leaders always inspire others to be the very best they can be.
Informed decision making
Every business faces hundreds of decisions every day, some trivial, some strategic. Many of these decisions have to be taken with imperfect information, either because the information is not available, or because it’s available but the effort to get it outweighs the risk of a mistake.
Remarkable leaders consistently make better decisions, at all levels. So what makes a ‘better’ decision? In general that is one that moves the business closer to achieving its strategic goals. That means everyone who has to make decisions in the business has to know what the strategic goals are, and know what the impact and consequences of the decision they’re making will be.
The key elements then of making better decisions throughout an organisation means giving all the staff confidence in their authority to make decisions, the detailed knowledge they need, and communicating the framework in which those decisions should be made.
Today’s business world moves quickly and the impact of some decisions can be significant. A poor decision can lead you a long way down a road before it’s clear that it’s the wrong direction. By then it’s costly both in money and time to recover. 21st century businesses take time to get the communication of strategy clear along with details of the timing and expectations along the way. They make sure their people have the information they need or know how to find it. Technology is shifting the goal posts, it allows organisations to bring in experts and specialists with specific knowledge and experience from anywhere in the world, at a moment’s notice. It allows colleagues to discuss things even when they are separated geographically.
Make quick decisions
While businesses move ever faster, operational decisions must also be made quickly and decisively. This is the norm, rather than the exception. These decisions need to reflect the good judgment of the company and prioritise what is most important to both the immediate needs of the business and society as well. Yet they must do that in the context of the organisation’s strategy too, and move the business forward.
This sounds like all decisions are difficult and need seniority and skill – which is why business leaders, so often end up being a bottleneck and a constraint on operational speed. Yet experience is key to better decisions, real experience highlights what knowledge is needed, shows up the gaps, and creates confidence in the outcomes of the choices made and insights into how to apply the experience to new situations. Building experience quickly in safe environments is a key skill for the 21st century business leaders.
Things do change, beyond the business, beyond the day to day for the team. So businesses need to pay attention to the political climate, the markets they are in and how they are developing, the environmental needs of their community and the world, and show a strong ethical stance. Their decisions need to be backed by knowledge of all of the different facets of the business.
Finally decisions need to be communicated, and that highlights just how often communication is a skill that’s needed at every level and by every member of a business. If the communication skills aren’t top quality the business won’t be either.
Developing people to be more effective
Good management and great leadership will provide the direction necessary to help workers perform at their best and the business succeed. They know that learning and development is an ongoing process, that wherever and whenever businesses do things there are opportunities to learn and make things better.
When an employee delivers a presentation, for example, she or he needs to present a positive image of the company – whether this is internal or external. Good public speaking skills are essential and great leaders recognise this and support their people’s development. They need development to be accessible and effective at their point of need.
Effective leaders also, for instance, present their people with opportunities to help one another do their best by exercising good teamwork skills. They are aware of the importance of knowing when to talk and when to listen and recognise this as an invaluable skill. They have humility and are willing to do work they are ‘overqualified’ for when needed. Good leaders know there are learning opportunities in every situation.
Empowering others to be responsible for both taking time to learn and taking time to share their learning, can make businesses more agile and more capable faster than any other business choice.
Learn from mistakes
Learning is often focused on avoiding mistakes, (and we don’t do that very well) and all too often little time is spent understanding how we can not only learn from mistakes, but also leverage the learning we get from successes. It’s here that the work of learning and development programmes have the most to add to 21st century organisations.
Remarkable organisations look beyond the boundaries of their own markets, to gain insight, to develop understanding. The experience of others, in their context, and the opportunity to apply their knowledge in your context means that successes in one market can often, with minor change, be applied in your own. A simple example of this was the idea of turning a wing upside down and fixing it to the rear of Formula One cars as that sport moved from the era of Fangio to the more technological eras that followed. Today, aerodynamics plays, perhaps, one of the most important parts of that sport.
Also, experience in your own market of the things that go wrong can be shared more widely. By doing so it’s possible to identify ways to avoid repetition. Encouraging people to share mistakes and reframe them as opportunities for all to learn from is just as important for success.
When a team learns together, supporting each other, wherever they are, using technology to bring, and keep them together, the experience is truly shared. Learning delivered in collaborative way with a group of peers provides the opportunity for learning to be effective and sustainable.
There’s more to it than that though. When people learn together they also learn about each other, about their strengths and weaknesses and in the 21st century business it’s the network of specialists that will win over the team of generalists. Collaborative learning facilitates the depth of understanding within the team, which makes a team act with unity of purpose and perform with purpose. When learning of this kind takes place remarkable results can be attained.
Making fewer mistakes, understanding the team and supporting them as they develop and grow is how additional profits are assured and because the underlying methodology is designed to make the changes last for the long term, those profits are sustainable. Sustainable profits are virtuous, because they create the means of investing further, on an ongoing basis.
Remarkable businesses work effectively and use training to secure long term sustainable benefits; particularly ensuring profitability is maintained and ever improving.
Firstly leadership must inspire and engage throughout the business. There must be informed, fast decision making where experience is communicated and shared easily. Effectiveness comes not just from the right support, but also the willingness to learn from mistakes and to leverage and embed success. Creating a collaborative learning environment, with those things in place drives sustainable profits and an engaged, motivated workforce.