By Ryan W. Quinn
A colleague of mine once told me about an experience he had while consulting for one of the world’s largest companies. This company had suddenly experienced a rapid and significant drop in profitability. To respond to this crisis they brought my colleague and the top four or five layers of leadership in their company to an emergency planning meeting to develop strategies for turning the company around.
Collaborating to Turn the Company Around
At the meeting, the leaders went through all of the data regarding the situation that their company was facing. The CEO explained to everyone how important it would be for everyone in the company to work together to turn the company around, and how they needed everyone to contribute. Then they broke up into groups to make plans regarding how to turn each section of the company around. After a day or so of planning the groups re-convened to present their plans to the CEO and to the other teams. The leaders of the teams–many of which were the CEO’s direct reports–made these presentations.
My colleague told the CEO that it was his job to grill each presenter thoroughly and completely to make sure that the plans were sound and could actually turn the company around. During the first few presentations, the CEO did exactly that: he asked tough questions and drilled down to the central issues. Then, a particularly intimidating member of the top management team stood to present. When he completed his presentation, the CEO asked him some “cupcake” questions, to my colleague’s exquisite disappointment.
A few days later, my colleague expressed his disappointment to me. He explained that the when the CEO failed to grill all of his direct reports equally, it sent a clear message to all of the other leaders in the room–whether the CEO intended it or not–that the request for everyone to contribute to the turnaround of the company did not apply to everyone. Some people would not be held quite as accountable, or be asked to sacrifice quite as much. As a result, many people would continue working with others in the organization in the same way they had before: without collaboration. The silos would not come down. Collaboration in the different units of the company would reflect the collaboration of the top management team.
Abraham Carmeli, a professor of Strategy and Management at Bar-Ilan University’s Graduate School of Business Administration recently conducted a study  on this phenomenon. He found a correlation between top management team collaboration, the quality of their decision-making, and organizational decline.
As we discussed in our previous post on collaboration, it is important to remember that collaboration is not the same as cooperation. Collaboration requires assertiveness as well as cooperation–an insistence that my interests and yours are both met, and that there is not a compromise for either of us in terms of interests.
In top management teams, collaborative approaches lead to better decision making because executives get all of their information on the table, surface conflicting issues, and discuss these issues until they come up with innovative solutions that meet the needs of multiple constituents, and prevent organizational decline.
The collaboration of a top management team can prevent organizational decline for many other reasons as well. For example, as the story above illustrates, people watch and learn from the examples of their leaders. At the first sign of a lack of assertiveness and collaboration, the employees immediately, if unconsciously, labeled their leaders as insincere in their commitment to work through the crisis in a truly collaborative way, which then undermined decisions and implementation throughout the entire organization.
Collaboration is important all over an organization, but the collaboration of a top management team is where collaboration begins–and sometimes ends–for the whole organization in many of the cases we observe.
What To Do?
What can you do if you work on a team that is not collaborative? There are many answers to this question, and some of them will depend on the specific situations that each team encounters. Here are a few suggestions and resources that can help you address this issue:
The company that my colleague worked with plodded along for a time. They eventually merged with another company, creating a whole new set of collaboration problems. The leaders are well-intentioned though, and want to learn from their mistakes. As long as there is learning, then the possibility for collaboration remains.
 Carmeli, Abraham and John Schaubroeck (2006). Top management team behavioral integration, decision quality, and organizational decline. The Leadership Quarterly, 17(5): 441-453.
 Stone, Douglas, Bruce Patton & Sheila Heen (2000). Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. Penguin.
 Ely, R., Meyerson, D., & Davidson, M. N. (2006). “Rethinking political correctness.” Harvard Business Review, 84, 79-87.