The future of leadership: effective collaboration

I was conducting a coaching session with an owner of an emerging recruitment agency and he asked me a simple and rather obvious question, yet it was one I had not been asked before in such a concise way.

We were discussing the development of leaders in his business. At that stage of his company’s life he didn’t have any team leaders in the business yet had several potential candidates to consider, in terms of their tenure and results, for a formal leadership role.

He asked me “What should I be looking for in a consultant’s behaviour that indicates that he or she is likely to be an effective leader of other recruiters?”

Previous questions I had fielded on this topic were generally ones focused on results or tenure as markers of future leaders. Of course, we all know of a top billing recruiter who was promoted to a leadership role and subsequently proved to be inept at leading others. Results or tenure are relevant but far from the whole picture when assessing a person for a formal leadership role.

I paused and reflected. I had written a number of articles about leadership in recruitment including The 5 characteristics of highly effective leaders yet I had never considered the behavior to look for before a person is a formal leader as a lead indicator of that person’s likely success as a leader of others.

My answer came instinctively “Effective collaboration. The recruiter will demonstrate the capability to work effectively with others, especially in a situation when there is no immediate commercial return for them.”

Examples include; a senior recruiter offers to introduce a (more junior) recruiter from another division to the senior recruiter’s client, when there is no fee split available to them if a job eventuates. A recruiter takes two hours to chase up two reference checks with contacts inside one of their clients but it’s not for their candidate, therefore no fee split. A recruiter asks a junior recruiter to lunch to check in with them even though the recruiter has no formal or informal leadership role with the junior recruiter. A perm recruiter accepts a temp recruiter’s request to interview one of the temp recruiter’s candidates about perm work even though the perm recruiter has no current jobs that match the skills of the candidate.

The self-interest of a recruiter will drive collaboration when a colleague has something of value that the recruiter wants, such as a client relationship or a relevant vacancy.

Is  that same recruiter willing to collaborate when there is no immediate commercial return from this collaboration?

Let me clear here – I’m not saying recruiters should be going around all day doing favours for their colleagues that don’t bring them commercial returns. That’s a very quick way to fail.

Ultimately every recruiter has be accountable for their own success and ensure that the activities that they undertake each day maximise the likelihood of vacancies being generated, relevant candidates being referred and of placements being made.

However the recruiter who is collaborative by nature, rather than being collaborative subject to circumstances, understands that ‘what goes around comes around’ and as such intelligently and purposefully accepts offers, or creates opportunities, to collaborate.

As Australian collaboration expert, Phil Preston, says“Collaborating skills are a precious commodity and CEOs are desperate to acquire and develop people with them.”

What sort of organisational environment maximises the likelihood of effective collaboration among team members and across teams? It’s an organisational environment in which leaders encourage, through words and example, their team members to stretch themselves, take risks and learn from their mistakes when inevitably there are disappointments and failures.

This has been proven through Google’s comprehensive two year study to discover what characterised their highest performing teams. The authors of the Google study called this characteristic psychological safety, the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake.

In this Harvard Business Review article Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google, outlines six ways in which a leader can increase the psychological safety on their team.

The two most actionable and relevant of Santagta’s six points for leaders of recruiters being:

Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary. We humans hate losing even more than we love winning. A perceived loss triggers attempts to reestablish fairness through competition, criticism, or disengagement, which is a form of workplace-learned helplessness. Santagata knows that true success is a win-win outcome, so when conflicts come up, he avoids triggering a fight-or-flight reaction by asking, “How could we achieve a mutually desirable outcome?”

Replace blame with curiosity. If team members sense that you’re trying to blame them for something, you become their saber-toothed tiger. John Gottman’s research at the University of Washington shows that blame and criticism reliably escalate conflict, leading to defensiveness and — eventually — to disengagement. The alternative to blame is curiosity. If you believe you already know what the other person is thinking, then you’re not ready to have a conversation. Instead, adopt a learning mindset, knowing you don’t have all the facts (the article goes on to list how to do this, step-by-step).

Author Greg Satell perfectly captures how important collaboration is becoming:

Make no mistake: The high-value work today is being done in teams. This will only increase as more jobs become automated. The jobs of the future will not depend as much on knowing facts or crunching numbers as on humans collaborating with other humans to design work for machines. Collaboration will increasingly become a competitive advantage. Value has shifted from cognitive skills to social skills. 

There are many things a leader could do to ensure the future health of their team or business.

Creating an environment in which collaboration thrives might just be the most important one of all.


  1. Phil Preston on 20/02/2019 at 8:45 am

    Great piece, Ross. Not only is there the collaboration skills of the candidate to consider, we must also bring focus to the culture of collaboration (or not) within the workplace. Studies have shown (eg. refer Tribal Leadership) that a visionary purpose and consistently applied, strong set of values within the workplace is a pre-requisite to creating the types of outcomes you provide in your examples. It sounds hard … and it is, however the rewards are far greater if you can get it right. Phil

  2. Sandy Eaton on 20/02/2019 at 1:39 pm

    An interesting read Ross and verbalises a lot of my thinking with the collaboration or lack of it across my team. Good reminder on what to recognise and also to nurture within the team.

  3. Sel Watts on 21/02/2019 at 11:27 am

    Always awesome Ross. Love this

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