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Collaborating for Survival and Success: Organizational Coaching Strategies to Meet Unique Opportunities and Challenges

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Leadership in these informal gatherings is ultimately exhibited in spontaneous and often unpredictable ways by many different members of the participating organizations. Expressions of concern for the welfare of employees from other partner organizations; genuine curiosity about the ways things are done in a partner company; a tangible expression of interest in learning from the new collaborative enterprise—these are all forms of interpersonal leadership that make a collaborative venture successful for everyone. The formal leaders of the participating organizations can help set the tone for these interactions (often with the assistance of a collaboration coach) by establishing the culture and appropriate structures and systems for the collaboration. The rest is inevitably up to the individual employees.

Finally, I suggest, along with Kanter, that effective leaders of collaborative ventures typically provide cultural integration—and organizational coaches often assist in helping their clients become and remain attuned to these subtle dynamics. Those who actually administer the enterprise play a central role, according to Kanter, in creating this form of integration. Those who are managing the collaboration must share some basic common values, as well as be open to differences in values that exist among the participating organizations. This is particularly important if the collaborative venture involves men and women from different countries, ethnic groups, socioeconomic levels, or even geographic locations in the same country.

I believe that leadership is central to each of these five integrative functions, for there is not likely to be much real action when an organization is faced with profound change unless leadership manifest at all levels of the organization. Kanter speaks of the central risk in collaboration that is at the heart of each of these five integrative functions: the risk of change. I have witnessed many organizations through my coaching and consulting that were poised on the brink of collaboration, in response to shifting conditions within and surrounding the organization. Yet this change never occurred, in large part because there was neither the courage nor the commitment of leaders in the organization (at all levels) to the necessity of change or to the learning that inevitably accompanies any change process. Fortunately or unfortunately, collaborative ventures inevitably involve change; for when we enter such a relationship we open ourselves to alternative perspectives and needs, which we must somehow integrate with the dominant perspectives and needs within our own organization. We should not encourage our clients to enter into any collaborative venture if they are unwilling to be influenced by their fellow collaborators.

Collaborative ventures inevitably create ambiguous boundaries and often elicit turbulence and unpredictability. The conditions are ripe for debilitating anxiety and a resulting attempt to reassert control and domination. However, if the anxiety can be bounded and contained, often with the assistance of a skilled organizational coach, then participants in a collaborative venture will be willing to take risks and to dream—both of which are essential to successful collaboration. One of the critical roles of leaders in any institution is to create a culture within their own organization that is supportive and safe. While it is clear that most of our organizations dwell in highly competitive environments and are in need of a competitive edge, it is also clear that the culture within these organizations must serve as a container for organization anxiety and a source of collaborative enthusiasm.

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