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Deputy leaders to learn why collaboration is an essential part of leadership

4 July 2018

News and media


team collaborating around a table

Effective organisations encourage collaboration not competition, and good leaders are those who can create a collaborative culture that harnesses the value of peer relationships, says Dr Karen Morley.

In the public sector, there is an increasing focus on public policy decision-making and management that emphasises the value of engaging across the boundaries of public agencies, levels of government and across sectors. Good relationships are key to doing this effectively.

Dr Morley is an executive coach and leadership developer, with expertise in collaborative learning, peer-based coaching and diversity, and will be one of the two co-convenors of ANZSOG’s first annual Deputies Forum on the Gold Coast in July.

The Forum focuses on the key challenges that Deputies are facing, which have been identified through a new ANZSOG research program to better recognise the specific challenges of this role.

“We are aware from research interviews that deputy secretaries are saying how important it is for them to operate through strong relationships, not just at the level of ringing people up for advice, but at the deeper level of working together on the challenges they face,” Dr Morley said.

“Deputies need to be relationally astute. They need to able to read the tone and mood in highly sensitive contexts, bridge political fault-lines, and draw on informal networks to get the work done. We want to give them a chance to deepen their practice of collaboration, so they can be more influential.”

Collaboration circles to build trust

Part of the Forum will be about exploring how collaboration can work in practice through ‘collaboration circles’.

“The collaboration circles technique means that on each program day they will bring in a real leadership challenge or issue and be coached by peer groups,” Dr Morley said.

“Each group will need to work together to develop a line of questioning to examine the issue and, by putting their egos to one side, work to take the relationship to another level. The fresh insights that participants gain into their own challenges can be particularly powerful.

“This approach recognises the need for leaders to shift away from a command-and-control style of engagement to one that supports and develops others.

“Trust is cultivated when leaders take the time and show their interest in supporting and developing others. This means teams perform at higher levels and get more work done. And it has the added benefit of relieving some of the pressure on senior leaders.”

While ANZSOG has held successful annual CEOs Forums for more than a decade, the Deputies Forum is a recognition that deputy CEOs, deputy secretaries and deputy directors-general are increasingly managing large functional areas, developing policy and expected to provide leadership across organisations.

The Forum, which will be co-chaired by place-based leadership expert Professor Brad Jackson, will focus on immersive experiences and interaction between participants.

“The people who attend bring with them a lot of experience and knowledge,” Dr Morley said.

“We are giving them opportunities to learn from and with each other, and to harness the depth of wisdom they bring.”

Dr Morley believes that collaboration, and supportive rather than competitive work cultures, are a key to building successful organisations.

Dealing with conflict

Dr Karen Morley 

Collaboration may be the ideal, but everyone knows that not everyone wants to collaborate and sometimes long-term relationships become fraught.

So what should managers do when a collaborative approach no longer seems possible, yet their continued involvement is necessary?

Dr Morley says that your best protection in these situations is your ‘best self’.

“The best protection you have in these situations is how you respond. When the behaviour of others provokes a reaction in you, then you are caught by it. Generally, when we are caught like this, we are not our best. We react, we think and act small,” she said.

“If you can see the situation more objectively, with greater emotional detachment, you will be less caught. You will have the situation, rather than the situation having you. If you continue to engage as your best self you will be more effective.

“Take your best self into conflict. Maybe you will change the outcome and maybe you won’t. What you will do is diminish your own reactivity and reduce your body’s stress response.

“Being hypervigilant and engaged in stressful situations over extended periods of time is well known to have serious health consequences. Protecting yourself by knowing your triggers and being your best self is my strongest recommendation.

“Building strong networks is also a way to avoid or mitigate the effects of conflict by ensuring that managers have alternatives ways to get things done, and are not stuck in a difficult situation.”

Good leaders are steady but flexible

Dr Morley says successful leaders in the 21st century will share a number of qualities in addition to the ability to collaborate well. These include cognitive flexibility, being steady under fire, and emotional intelligence.

“Cognitive flexibility is about being able to hold up the kaleidoscope, turn it and get different patterns, because the world is constantly changing, and if leaders can shift with it and be adaptive and flexible they will be successful.

“Being steady under fire, often relies on being able to separate the subjective from the objective and not feel personally up caught up by events. When leaders have clear values and purpose behind what they do, this can be an anchor point in difficult times.”

“There is also a need for emotional intelligence, and that comes from self-awareness and empathy for people around you. These are not always qualities that people are promoted for, but they are vital.”

Senior public sector leaders are working across their own organisations, the broader public sector, and other sectors, and they need more than their formal authority to do this well. They need a wide range of strategic and personal skills to build the networks they need to identify opportunities and drive lasting change.

This makes it even more important for organisations to invest in improving the skills of their senior leaders, through innovative programs like ANZSOG’s Deputies Forum.

ANZSOG’s inaugural Deputies Forum will be held on 15-18 July on the Gold Coast, Queensland.