What does collaborative leadership mean to you?

I believe that being collaborative in your leadership creates great results for people, clients and stakeholders.
By leading collaboratively you gain buy-in and ownership across the team, your decisions are informed by the right people and tested from different perspectives. Team members understand why they are doing what they are doing, they are emotionally bought in and they are empowered. In essence everyone feels that they are in it together. 

As a leader, learning how to best to use my influence – rather than my authority – to drive things forward is how I create a sustainable and exciting business for our people to work within. I provide the direction of travel, the framework and context we work within – I’m here to guide, facilitate, support, and get involved as required without disempowering. The term I use for this is ‘eyes on, hands off’.  

So it’s hugely important to me that I  get the team working well together and communicating effectively. Then, as a team, we can collectively create wider and better intelligence networks, which are crucial to identifying opportunities, being responsive as well as helping us to continually learn, adapt and change to make sure we stay ahead of the pack.  

Ultimately, I am accountable for the business being well positioned in the context of the market. So I must help and encourage people to work with others they may not know so well. It’s up to me to ensure that the right relationships, the right networks and the right connections – both inside and outside our business – are created and nurtured. I must also ensure that this intelligence flows around our business so that all our people can help identify opportunities and provide the best possible service to our clients. I can’t, and I don’t, do all this on my own; I do this with the great team I have and we work very hard together to make this happen.

People do what they see you doing. If you are a parent, you’ve probably had that moment when one of your children reflects one of your mannerisms or sayings. It makes you very self-conscious, doesn’t it? The work environment is no different; I must role-model what I seek from others. I hope my team see me as inquisitive, curious and continually wanting to learn, open, honest and authentic – empowering people and letting them fly. 

I believe that if I can inspire and energise talent – bringing together people with diverse views, experiences and perspectives – I can stimulate great creativity as well as generating wonderful ownership and excitement.

But let’s be clear: collaboration is not consensus. Being a leader means I must also master the art of knowing when and how to step in to halt unproductive debate, address negative behaviours and make final decisions. 

Do you have any examples of the benefits you’ve seen by leading this way?

Absolutely, and these benefits present themselves in many different ways.

A few years ago, I led a project delivering a significant software application, which suffered from some tricky challenges. When things get tough like this it’s easy for people and organisations to become protectionist and defensive. By leading collaboratively and being transparent on the issues we faced – and ensuring the client was part of deciding how we overcame them – we worked through the problem step by step. We managed the impact of changes, and we delivered an innovative, world-leading application.

One of the other benefits is about people. As a leader, when you have a team-centric approach it means you engage with lots of your people at different levels. So you can better spot the talent and potential that exists within the business, and you can then work with managers to identify the best development paths.

Why is collaborative leadership particularly important when working within an environment that requires significant change?
Change creates a reaction. For some, initially it is a negative response – making them feel insecure and threatened. For others, it generates excitement; I’m very aware that I sit in the latter category. 

For me, the critical piece of the jigsaw in a period of change is that people understand the why. Our probability of success increases when we have people with differing views, perspectives, experience and knowledge contributing. It ensures the plan is robustly challenged, well considered and, ultimately, successful. People gain a better understanding of the context, they feel part of the programme, they feel it is being done by them as opposed to being done to them. That generates positivity that should ripple out to the wider organisation. 
Collaborative leadership needs to be effective at all levels – it’s something in which we all have a part to play in the teams we work within or lead.

How does WSP ensure our people exemplify this thinking at all levels and on all projects?
An ambition to lead collaboratively flows all through the business. At the very top we have five guiding principles:
1. We value our people and our reputation
2. We are locally dedicated with international scale
3. We are future-focused and challenge the status quo
4. We foster collaboration in everything we do
5. We have an empowering culture and hold ourselves accountable.

These principles align to a desire and need for collaborative leadership and I see them come to life in everything from UK Executive Leadership Team meetings I sit on all the way through to project-level reviews and discussions where we work together across disciplines to solve issues and challenges. 

It’s through our people that we bring these guiding principles to life. We have training programmes that help people develop their leadership capabilities, as well as specific training on collaboration. Our people are the key to our success in leading collaboratively.

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