5 tips for leading green collaborations and networks

Be it collective leadershipadaptive leadershipflourishing or the less visible leader, there is an abundance of collaborative leadership models to consider. I recently attended a leadership workshop at the Land Trust Alliance Rally led by Dianne Russell of the Institute for Conservation Leadership and wrote about "flourishing" for the Center for Responsible Business. With that in mind, I offer these five tips to jump-start the effectiveness of your collaborative leadership.

Why collaborate?

Before jumping in, I want to touch first on the question, "Why bother to collaborate?" The key reason for collaboration is that when you have the right diversity of perspectives and voices in the room, new solutions and ideas can emerge that have authentic support.

A new paper released by the Institute for Conservation Leadership, "The Less Visible Leader: Emerging Leadership Models for Environmental Networks, Coalitions, and Collaboratives," concludes:

Most environmental problems we face cannot be solved by individual nonprofits working on their own. Big long-term challenges like climate change, habitat loss, and food insecurity will only be addressed by building effective networks that include a diversity of perspectives and involve a wide variety of constituencies and organizations.

According to the report, "Making Change: How Social Movements Work and How to Support Them," a key element to creating a successful social movement is a willingness to network with other movements and to create an authentic base by involving those with "skin in the game."

1. People: Bring the system into the room

One aspect of leadership that Russell addressed was getting the right people in the room. Be sure the collaborative has appropriately broad and diverse membership for the purpose. If you mapped the issue you are addressing, are the key stakeholders from the system represented? Do you have a clear procedure for adding new members? If there is a clear mutual benefit, a collaborative effort makes its members stronger, rather than stretching them thinner.

One example cited in "The Less Visible Leader"  is RE-AMP, an active network of nearly 160 nonprofits and foundations across eight Midwestern states working on climate change and energy policy. It has had great success bringing together a diverse set of stakeholders from environmental, labor, faith, youth, energy and conservation to develop common priorities to achieve its goals in the areas of clean energy, coal, energy efficiency, global warming solutions and transportation.

According to Rick Reed of the Garfield Foundation, "We believed we could have a bigger impact by helping to put the pieces together to accomplish one big thing."

A recent Harvard Business Review article focuses on Wal-Mart's experience when it created a series of dialogues with more than 100 key NGOS and stakeholders, resulting in new, big goals in the areas of sustainability, women's economic empowerment and more healthful food. Leslie Dach, former executive VP of Corporate Affairs, recalls, "We started by encouraging the organization to get out of its defensive crouch and listen to its critics. It wasn't easy to open up to the outside, but the learning opportunity was clear."

Those of us that have participated in cross-sector partnerships understand their power, but also respect some of the challenges. Three strategies mentioned by Russell to enhance effectiveness include:

  • Build trust: Create opportunities for people to get to know each other, including interactive outings and structured exercises.
  • Teach listening: Catalyze a culture of cooperation; encourage participants to listen deeply.
  • Share leadership: Create space for others to step up and contribute.

2. Pay attention to process and purpose

The other two key elements in Russell's model were to address process and purpose. Yet Traci Barkley of Prairie Rivers Network warns, "Structural details are spirit-killing. Set them aside. Start by naming shared intentions and building trust."

A key creative tension for leaders to manage is how to catalyze a culture of creativity, risk-taking and trust, while sharing power, generating momentum and staying true to the long-term vision. According to Russell, addressing process includes clear decision-making processes and roles and responsibilities, accountability and shared authority. Purpose includes creating a common vision, clear purpose and goals, strategic analysis and a clear work plan.

3. Understand adaptive leadership

Russell's presentation touched upon Ronald Heifetz, founder of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard, and his work on adaptive leadership. A classic Harvard Business Review article, "The Work of Leadership," explains:

Often the toughest task for leaders in effecting change is mobilizing people throughout the organization to do adaptive work. Adaptive work is required when our deeply held beliefs are challenged, when the values that made us successful become less relevant, and when legitimate yet competing perspectives emerge. ... Solutions to adaptive challenges reside not in the executive suite but in the collective intelligence of employees at all levels, who need to use one another as resources, often across boundaries, and learn their way to those solutions.

The article, although published 12 years ago, offers six principle for leading adaptive work that are still worth a read: Get on the balcony; identify the adaptive challenge; regulate distress; maintain disciplined attention; give the work back to people; and protect voices of leadership from below.

An older Stanford Social Innovation Review article (PDF) addressed adaptive leadership by explaining, "The central task of adaptive leadership is mobilizing people to clarify what matters most, in what balance, and with which trade-offs. People and institutions that lead must harness, manage, and ultimately defuse conflict among interested parties so that each can adapt to the other and to the situation in a manner that brings about social progress problem is."

4. Push, but not too far

Set up a culture and processes that allow for brainstorming, dialogue on tough issues, making mistakes and taking risks. As an artist, I know my best art comes from being willing to "ruin" a piece and push the limits. Sometimes the result is powerful. But when I push too far, the result can be muddy, heavy or overworked. A key leadership skill is to learn how to modulate this tension. That's what Heifetz refers to as "keeping the distress within a tolerable range."

In "The Less Visible Leader," Joan Crooks, executive director of the Washington Environment Coalition, stresses this: "Pay attention to when an issue is ripe and ready, then move. This combination of mindfulness plus an intuitive sense of when to lay back and wait, and when to push the group forward, is one of the most valuable assets in leading a collaborative effort."

5 Jump-start your next meeting

To shift a group's mindset to be more productive, try the following exercise, based on the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) process. AI is a whole system change methodology that provides a framework for accessing the strengths of a system for enhancing capacity to change.

At the beginning of your next group meeting, have the group break up into pairs, and ask participants to share a high-point experience, a moment when they were passionate and at their best. According to Dave Sherman, co-author of the upcoming book on flourishing, a shift will occur when you start a meeting with a moment that focuses on a positive experience.

This story originally appeared at Green Impact. Image of tree by roundstripe via Shutterstock