Unlikely Collaboration: The Secret To Success

Trying to describe effective collaboration is a bit like describing true love. You know when you’re in it. It feels wonderful, but it’s hard to describe to anyone outside the relationship. And like love, you can get burned by sexy potential collaborators who don’t play straight.

Unfortunately, such scenarios leave scar tissue that scares many away from potentially amazing future collaboration. Much is lost when you’re afraid to connect. If you’ve been burned, it’s worth understanding why, and trying again.

A Collaboration Success Story

Last week we brought 2 dozen people from 6 competing companies together to discuss common leadership challenges. I contract with all of them to provide customer service. Staying very diligent to the right side of the law (no discussion of contracts, terms and conditions, or competitive secrets), we held a think tank on common leadership concerns.

  • How do you inspire call center reps to care deeply about customers?
  • How do you find time to coach and develop when the queue’s backed up?
  • How do you build better leadership in a young front-line team?
  • How do we leverage technology to communicate more effectively?
  • What can my team do to be more helpful as the “client?”

The passion in the room was palpable. As common frustrations surfaced, competitors shared their leadership best practices, followed by brainstorming and collective planning. Everyone was focused on getting better results and doing the right thing for the customer.

“What if we had a week where we all concentrated on developing our leaders around this difficult challenge.” “What if we you produced inspiring videos to reinforce the vision each month?” On the breaks, leaders would pull me aside and affirm the approach: “This is fantastic, it’s great to know it’s not just us; Everyone’s in the same boat; It’s awesome to collaborate on these challenges.” And my favorite: “No other client of ours ever does this, they should.”

What is True Collaboration?

What made this work? What’s missing when collaborations go South?

Collaboration works when:
  • Vision is bigger than ego
  • Everyone has something to gain
  • The mission is clearly defined
  • Parameters are established
  • Leadership is shared
  • No one keeps score
  • People play by established ground rules
  • Folks takes time to get to know one another as people
  • Strengths are leveraged
  • It’s okay to put on the brakes as needed
  • Dissent is encouraged and accepted
  • Contributions are recognized
Posted in Authenticity & Transparency and tagged , , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, Founder of Let’s Grow Leaders, helps leaders around the world achieve breakthrough results, without losing their soul. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she has over two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and HR. She was recently named on Inc's list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers and American Management Association's 50 Leaders to Watch. She’s the author of 3 books: Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul, Overcoming an Imperfect Boss, and Glowstone Peak.


  1. Collaboration is all about give and take and strategic listening. It is essential that in a collaboration, each person listens to hear what is truly being said, not what they think should be said. Don’t interrupt. Don’t jump to conclusions.

    The other important element of successful collaboration is being open-minded to suggestions that you may not have thought were important. Let the ideas percolate and then evaluate.

    Great post, Karin!

  2. Karin,

    Next time you do one of these, can I come? I’m responsible for a call center with backed up queues and a front line team of new leaders. I would be a perfect fit 🙂

    I love the bullet points you make. Maybe it’s just the industry I work in, but getting past the egos is one of the more difficult challenges I face with other department managers. I’ve learned to sharpen my negotiating skills to demonstrate the wins for all parties concerned.

  3. Karin- you started the post elegantly saying “t feels wonderful, but … it’s hard to describe to anyone outside the relationship”. This is the dilemma you put me in as I fail to express the value of this post the way I enjoy it..
    Vision is bigger than ego- that is a great point. People shall never glue together unless they have a bigger vision than the self interest of every one. I have two presentations that reinforce this idea. It applies to humans as well creatures such as ants.

  4. my, that’s a great list! One model I’ve seen is in the burgeoning craft beer world. I’ve seen small breweries collaborate with each other under the ‘rising tide’ raises all boats concept. That’s even led to some collaborative brewing.
    In the non profit world this does not often happen because of the competition for donor dollars. But that’s a mistake, we often do not have overlapping missions and can even discuss how to best not duplicate services. The biggest impediment however is resource. It’s really difficult to find the money to meet and share best practices with like agencies.

    • Bill, What a cool example of collaboration in the beer world. I agree with you, I think we limit our mission when we focus on the scarcity of resources vs. collaborating toward the greater good.

  5. Great post, Karin.

    Unfortunately, once we get burned, there is hesitation to move back into a collaborative mindset.

    I think ego is one of the major obstacles in getting around feelings of betrayal and defensiveness.

  6. Karin, I have been fortunate to attend this type of “Competitors United” activity and it is such a refreshing concept. There is a certain dynamic when you bring together those who live in the same-ish boat. I could feel the passion you described. Successful collaborations produce a spirit of agreement after meaningful discussion. When adjourned, I like to have an action or task in my pocket so we can execute a plan or create an experience. “The sum of us” is so cool. Thank you for this post, I could not leave the day without chiming in.

  7. Great story Karin; its a shame the customer had to come up with the idea 😉
    What you set out is a true success story on the power of collaboration. Its exciting.

    I have one I’ll try to keep short.

    A company back, I had to explain to a surprised customer that I wouldn’t be deploying our new induction program for our staff who provided support services until we heard and understood what they, the customer, expected us to know about their organisation.

    Once the customer (who hadn’t been completely happy with us) knew they really did have go/no-go control over the program they really jumped in and took ownership of the part we wanted them to play.

    Trust was high and because of that relations good as we worked on and even improved the program. In a parallel world from mine called ‘account management’ the customer let us know that they would be renewing their support agreement with us, plus a $200m expansion.

    As an epilogue to the story, I was contacted last week (as it happens), by an ex-colleague who said this customer continues to let them know how important they rate the (now ongoing) collaboration program.

    I’d encourage anyone who does not yet have a formal customer collaboration program to pick up the phone and set up a meeting to talk about mutually beneficial topics, before its Karin (aka the customer) calling you 🙂

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