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Let’s Dance: The Three Essential Traits for Collaborative Leaders

- March 7, 2011 - 6 Comments

“Let’s dance!”

As a young executive working for the German media company Bertelsmann, I was part of a team that was asked to make some substantial organizational and technical changes in our New York City office. In mid-December we brought all the employees together for a big holiday party and end-of-the-project celebration. I was attending the party with a manager who had just come over from our German headquarters. Although we had a wonderful band and a large dance floor, no one was dancing.

The party was not going well.

Suddenly my German colleague stood up, reached out his hand to me and said firmly “Debra, dance with me!” I was a bit self-conscious (being the sole couple dancing) but soon people got up and joined us and the party took off. As the song ended my colleague and dance partner gave me some advice I have never forgotten.

He said, “Debra, when you lead, you must lead in all things!”

1. Authentic, Transparent Leadership

Winning in a new collaborative world takes brave leadership that is authentic, enthusiastic and transparent to all. The days of deals and decisions being made behind closed doors are over. Now, more than ever, leaders must be visible and their decisions and the decision-making process must be clearly understood. Not everyone may agree with the final outcome but an inspirational leader will be bold while listening and taking feedback.

As I often say, it is better to be “directionally correct”, than to be frozen in fear of making the wrong decisions. It’s up to leaders in organizations to be evangelists, to establish a positive, trusting culture. I can tell if I’m effective as a leader, not only by surveys and results, but also by the energy in the office. Do people look like they are having fun? Are they excited about new projects? Do they understand their role in the vision, strategy and execution of our group? Do they feel comfortable and safe fighting for something they strongly believe in?

2. Consistent, Engaging Communication

Frequent, engaging, (dare I say?) predictable communication is key.

For example, here at Cisco’s Collaboration Software Group, in addition to quarterly meetings for all employees, we hold informal “town hall” meetings where employees can ask questions and start a dialogue with our leadership team. All meetings are recorded on WebEx to be respectful of employee’s time, and time zones.

We meet formally with managers each month and they are supplied with a monthly “Meeting-in-a-Box kits’’ to communicate to their staff so the messages remains consistent. We have an active intranet site that lists our results and customer satisfaction scores, our platform road map and our new initiatives. We send special email alerts when significant announcements need to be communicated. We have an “app” that encourages the team to submit ideas to improve our products, services and organization. And we recognize outstanding individuals for their contributions, by their peers as well as their managers.

I personally blog (both in writing and on video), tweet, share my email address and have open office hours every Friday for any employee (in person or via WebEx) in my group. We run confidential employee focus groups as needed, in addition to our annual employee satisfaction surveys. We ask for feedback (a lot!) and “course correct” when necessary.

3. Trust and Respect Your Employees

Finally, in a workplace that moves quickly and relies on collaboration tools, it is paramount that you truly trust and respect employees. That means not demanding arbitrary work hours or unrealistic deadlines, but instead supplying the needed resources to meet pre-agreed team results. It means not being a bottleneck, but responding quickly and decisively so your staff can move forward—answering emails, attending and participating in meetings and just being visible for the occasional “drive by” conversation. Making time to listen and not judging when problems occur. Looking for “processes to correct,” instead of “people to blame”.

Respect can also mean making tough decisions like realizing that someone may be in the wrong job–one that doesn’t fit their skills and style. Honest discussions about goals and objectives–both for the person you manage and for the company–can result in changes that ultimately improve the situation for everyone.

I invite you to take the lead…be authentic and transparent, communicate effectively and trust and respect your employees. Let’s all get up and dance!


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  1. Wow inspiring leaders beget leaders thanks for sharing in true leadership style

  2. Hi Debra, I got so excited when I read your post. Thank you for putting out a picture of leadership that is so relatable. Best! Kim

  3. Hi Debra, I appreciate your post. You paint a wonderful picture, with tangible steps, of collaborative leadership. We are a new SaaS company called Powernoodle (I know-great name!). Powernoodle is a web-based tool bringing principles of gaming, anonymity and a process to drive ideas to action, to make meetings more effective. A Powernoodle meeting means everyone's voice was heard, a transparent process drove the best ideas to results...and participants had fun along the way. We are big fans of Cisco, having worked with the company in our past consulting lives and use webex as our conference tool. Would you be open to having a conversation about possible collaboration projects we could explore together? I look forward to hearing from you. Kim Kim Alexander VP Sales and Marketing Powernoodle Direct - 1-226-333-9002 Toll Free - 1-855-797-6353

  4. Congratulations for expanding your comfort zone and celebrating your collaborative leadership skills, Debra. I love the infusion of trust, playfulness and enthusiasm in your essential traits of collaborative leaders. This goes not only for companies but educational and government entities as well. We are creating something new across the globe and I ask myself, how can I help. It is by validating successful leaders such as you, Debra who live in full consciousness of our challenges with a focus on the solutions that each of us can bring both locally and globally. To your continued dance of expanding success, Mary Margaret

  5. Excellent. Thank you.

  6. Very inspiring and a way to build a good organization. I realize what value it adds as we are a start up. Thank you. Ganesh