The Single Most Important Way to Build a Collaborative Culture

August 22, 2016


Diverse Business People in a Meeting

Last week’s article/blog post, “Why Collaborative Leadership is Central to the Future of Work,” generated more attention and commentary than I have experienced in some time. I encourage you to reread the article and in particular to take a look at the online comments from Robert Buss and Bob Leek (below the article).

The article also led to an extended conversation with Steven Beary, a corporate real estate strategist and Principal/CFO at The Beary Group, whose insights I have always found enlightening.

Steven told me several directly relevant and highly compelling stories about his experiences with collaborative cultures that I want to pass on. His basic message: there’s one surefire way to build an organizational culture that values and practices meaningful collaboration:

Hire for it.

It’s both that simple and that profound. Listen to Steven’s description of how two very different companies he worked for did exactly that:

I worked for two very different organizations for a combined total of nearly 27 years, in both cases in a senior management capacity. They were in different industries and operated very differently, but they had several common corporate values – values that enabled both organizations to overcome and even eliminate polarization to create a truly collegial environment.

In case it was the North American operations of a large Japanese high-tech firm with over 7500 diverse, US-based employees led by an executive team that was largely made up of Japanese males; and the other company was a privately-held North American real estate services and consulting organization that consisted of about 250 professionals who also represented a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds and ages, with a balanced male/female split.

In both companies we weren’t driven by traditional mission and value statements but rather explicit statements about who we are as people, who are we going to be known to be: how are we expected to act, what is important to you as an individual, and how you related to other people, both inside the organization and customers or suppliers. It was about how you reacted and related as a member of the “tribe” – what your tribal DNA was.

We valued the individual; we valued the contributions that every single person in the organization made, whether he/she was a managing director or the receptionist. We viewed every individual as an “Ambassador” for the “tribe,” and we were very clear about how we expected every Ambassador to conduct himself or herself.

Those values, and the culture they produced, was built on the old homily, ‘Two heads are better than one.’ We were as completely non-judgmental as I can imagine – whether by age, or ethnic background, or education and training, or by gender. What mattered was your willingness to be part of the team, to communicate clearly and openly, and to collaborate with everyone else.

Both of these organizations were very flat. We had organization charts that showed the formal hierarchy and responsibility charters, but that’s not the way we functioned. We designed the meeting rooms and all our facilities to convey that sense of openness, of transparency, of collaborating with others in the truest sense of the term.

In the Japanese company we had a very large, open room, that was essentially an early ‘open office landscape” with lots of desks and no intervening walls. That meant all our conversations were public and impossible not to overhear. It was impossible not to learn what your colleagues were talking about and focusing on (there were also plenty of small conference rooms where people could duck into them if they really needed some privacy). That meant that most of us were capable of contributing ideas or support to almost anyone else.


But how did you build those collaborative values into the tribal DNA? How did you make sure that the people you hired brought those values with them? I’m assuming you didn’t just hire anyone and then force them into that mold. It’s hard to impose new values on adults who don’t have them already. How do you recruit and hire for values rather than skills?


In both organizations I’m referring to, many of the people we interviewed and hired were not deep experts in the functional area for which they were being hired. We focused on who they were as individuals – we were looking at their character, at their communication styles. Were they easy to talk to, about a wide range of topics?

When I joined the Japanese company, I had 19 separate conversations with different members of the organization – and not just in the functional area I was being interviewed for. The belief was that there were already plenty of smart people in the organization, so what mattered – and what would keep us better than the competition – was finding people who were committed to open, candid communication, and who truly believed that two heads are better than one, or three are better than two.

Our recruiting “interviews” were essentially wide-ranging conversations that covered what people had done in their lives, but not just in their business careers. We wanted to hear stories about their childhood, their parents, their families, their community activities. We wanted to be certain they were the right kind of individuals with integrity who would fit into the culture we already had.Two businesswomen at an interview in the office.


I find it easier to understand the principle of hiring people for “who they are” and for their predisposition towards collaboration than I do actually implementing that idea.

However, I am duly impressed by Steven’s description of a multiple-interview process that emphasizes personal stories and experiences more than on functional capabilities.

Have you had any similar experiences? What does it take to become a good interviewer who recognizes the values and skills that are the foundation of collaboration?

Collaboration is at the very heart of organizational effectiveness. Without a collaborative culture that values individual skills, expertise, and experiences, there is almost no way you can make corporate conversations and meetings matter in any fundamental sense. Call me today at +1 510.558.1434 for a free initial conversation about how you can build a collaborative leadership mindset in your organization.

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