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Collaborative Leadership: What It Is & Why It’s Important

Career Advice & Advancement Industry Advice Communications & Digital Media

As the professional world continues to develop and change, the way executives within organizations manage their teams has needed to evolve with it. 

In the past, leaders often worked in silos, handling only the tasks that fell directly under their domain. Today, however, managers are leaning on collaborative leadership methods as a means of embracing innovation and meeting their organization’s unique goals.

Read on to learn what collaborative leadership means, what trends are making it so essential, and how you can embrace this method in your workplace today.

What is Collaborative Leadership?

Collaborative leadership is a management practice in which members of a leadership team work together across sectors to make decisions and keep their organization thriving. This style of leadership has become common among managers today, replacing the standard top-down leadership method of the past, in which high-level executives made decisions that trickled down to employees without offering any insight into how or why those decisions were made.

Unlike this outdated top-down approach, the collaborative leadership model offers many benefits to organizations. At the executive level, it fosters a sense of unity among managers, allowing them to make effective business decisions quickly, set and maintain the organization’s core values, and strategically address issues as a single, cohesive team. Embracing collaboration at this high level also demonstrates to employees that they, too, should approach their work in a similar, collective way.

“If you’re the CEO and you want a more collaborative leadership model, it starts with you,” says Carl Zangerl, lead faculty for the Master of Science in Corporate and Organizational Communication program within Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies. “That’s what leadership is—defining the vision and defining what values you, at the leadership level, feel are most critical in helping the organization succeed, and then embodying them.”

When executives can successfully embody collaboration, they create a needed feeling of transparency across teams. This transparency fosters an environment of openness, trust, and comfort which, in turn, allows professionals to freely share different perspectives, voices, opinions, and ideas across sectors—a necessary step in the innovation process.

Alongside an increase in innovation, studies show that this type of environment also sparks productivity among employees. Forbes reported that a recent joint study found companies that “promoted collaborative working were five times as likely to be high performing.” 

Overall, organizations that are led by collaborative leaders are likely to develop more agile, innovative, and high-functioning teams that can make a lasting impact across industries.


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Trends Impacting Collaborative Leadership 

Workplaces are embracing the collaborative leadership model now more than ever before—and with good reason. Access to digital collaboration tools, a shift in the view of employees as assets across multiple functional areas, and the use of big data in decision-making have all led to an increase in the use of collaborative teams across industries. Below, we explore how each of these aspects has contributed to this increase in cross-functional collaboration.

Access to New Technologies

Digital collaboration tools in the workplace have broken down many physical and metaphorical barriers among employees, allowing teams to work more closely together to accomplish tasks. “When I was in my corporate career, functional areas operated independently [without] much information sharing,” Zangerl says. “[But now], the impact of digital technologies can be felt across organizations.”

Video conferencing, instant messaging, and the use of digital project management, time management, and customized operational programs provide employees in different departments—and even in different physical locations—the opportunity to actively engage with one another regularly. Products like Google’s G-Suite—which allow files to be easily created, edited, and distributed among teams—also provide employees the ability to share ideas and opinions virtually. 

These products have been vital as the nation continues to embrace both remote working and the gig economy. Research shows that, whether or not they are co-located, employees seek ways to stay connected. As a result, the organizations that offer these digital communication tools are in high demand. For example, a Deloitte study reported that workers were 17 percent “more satisfied with their workplace culture when they had access to effective digital collaboration tools.” Similarly, the study found that 46 percent of professionals found that these tools created the sense of transparency within their organization needed for proper collaboration.

A New Appreciation for Individual Strengths 

Many organizations have come to recognize the fact that a unified team of talented individuals can make a stronger impact on a company’s success than a single leader ever could.

“No one leader can lead an organization—it’s just impossible,” Zangerl says. “That’s a really old model of leadership, and the newer model is much more collaborative. There’s a recognition that people have different strengths, and you leverage those strengths to make the biggest impact.”

Studies show that professionals today are acquiring many strengths in the workplace that have applications beyond their everyday tasks. Collaborative leaders embrace these strengths—which might range from “soft skills” like strategic thinking, empathy, and communication to practical skills such as coding, project management, or analytics—and strategically apply them across functional departments. This act is responsible for developing the kinds of dynamic, agile teams we see in many of today’s top-performing organizations.

An Increase in Data-Based Decision-Making

Zangerl believes that “collaborative leadership becomes most critical in organizations that are further along in the digital transformation,” including those which have digitized the majority of their operations using technology such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

AI and machine learning software are commonly used to collect, organize, and present business-related data to leadership teams across industries, resulting in a vast array of information from which executives must draw conclusions and make impactful, data-based decisions. In these scenarios, leadership teams that do not act collaboratively risk making choices that might not align with their overall mission, or might otherwise not take into account the needs of every department within the organization. 

How to Become a Collaborative Leader

Recognizing the potential impact of collaboration is the first step in becoming a truly collaborative leader. However, if you want to transform your workplace and begin fully embracing this inclusive leadership method, there are a few steps you can take.

1) Do Your Research

One of the best ways to learn how to act as a collaborative leader is to witness a successful collaborative leader in action. Comb through your professional network to try and identify a connection who might either work under this type of manager or who is one themselves. Depending on your relationship, you might ask to meet up and discuss their experience with collaboration, focusing most specifically on the ways this practice has impacted their sense of unity as an organization, their personal and team productivity, and their overall workplace culture.

If you don’t feel you have anyone in your network who might be able to provide this kind of insight, try tackling your research from a broader angle. Search for companies that notoriously embrace collaborative leadership—such as Salesforce, General Electric, and IBM—and read up on the ways the executives in these organizations apply this method to their workplace. Being able to see how well-known companies have grown under a collaborative leadership model might help further solidify the benefits of applying this practice within your team, as well.

2) Practice Collaboration in Your Workplace

Although it may take time for managers to transition from another leadership method to one of collaboration, there are a few key steps Zangerl outlines that can set them on the path toward success.

  • Articulate a clear vision. Zangerl explains that it is up to an organization’s leaders to set “a clear vision that collaboration is going to be part of the culture of the organization.” Without that standard, professionals will have a hard time knowing what they’re working toward in terms of collaboration and will lack the inspiration needed to break boundaries.
  • Lead by example. In order to inspire your team to operate collaboratively, it’s important to demonstrate what you’d like to see at the executive-level. “People within an organization model their behavior on what they see leaders doing,” he says. “So if they see leaders setting and modeling collaborative behavior, then it’s more likely they’re going to expect that from members of their teams.”
  • Create the right environment. Collaborative leaders are team-oriented, good listeners, and, perhaps most significantly, able to create a collaborative environment in their workplace. This type of environment should be filled with trust, transparency, and a focus on relationship-building above all else—a combination that will naturally set the tone for shared ideas and perspectives.

3) Never Stop Learning

Enrolling in a graduate program is an excellent way for any professional to gain practical abilities and advance in their career. Individuals hoping to be promoted into a manager role, for instance, might consider earning an advanced degree in their specific area of work. Those who are already managers, however, should instead pursue a degree that will teach them how to be an overall more effective leader

Did You Know: Northeastern’s master’s in leadership program offers great opportunities for managers to explore the various approaches to leadership, practice their skills outside of the classroom, and identify which method works best for them. 

The Master of Science in Corporate and Organizational Communications Program

For the leaders who are confident in the collaborative leadership approach, however, a Master of Science in Corporate and Organizational Communication from Northeastern offers the perfect combination of courses and hands-on experience you’ll need to succeed.

“All of the courses [in the corporate and organizational communications program] put a big emphasis on really understanding how communication supports the overall organization vision and strategy,” Zangerl says. “We know you’re not doing communication for the sake of communication. You’re really supporting the performance of the organization and the culture that you’re working in.”

These skills are vital in creating a collaborative working environment and operating under this particular leadership model, and this program offers students the chance to learn from industry professionals who have already applied these practices to their workplaces.

The curriculum of the master’s in corporate and organizational communication program also addresses some of the trends defining collaborative leadership today. “We’re always looking at what the changes are in the field, and how we can reflect those in the courses we’re teaching,” Zangerl says. “[For example,] we know digital technologies…agility, and data-based decision making are reshaping the organizational world,” and Northeastern’s program has developed courses that provide communicators with the tools they need to successfully operate in these rapidly changing environments.

Part of that approach is an emphasis on real-world experience. “We’re trying to give students [the chance to] practice those skills, so we’ve built a lot more experiential learning opportunities into the program,” he continues.

Through co-ops, XN projects, and more, students will have the chance to practice collaboration within active workplaces, while also observing first-hand the kind of powerful impact a collaborative leader can have on an organization.

“When you’re working in a real-life scenario, you begin to recognize the fact that you have to be collaborative, you have to be thinking about teamwork, and you have to be thinking about how to leverage digital technologies,” Zangerl says. “[Then] you have to synthesize all of that in order to be an effective [leader.]”

Learn more about how the Master of Science in Corporate and Organizational Communication from Northeastern can help you hone your collaborative leadership skills by talking to an enrollment coach today. 


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