THE BLOG

6 Lessons I Learned Leading a Cross-Sector Collaboration

02/03/2015 02:47 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015

I believe cross-sector collaboration is often the best way to tackle complex problems, as we can access more wisdom and power if we work across sectors. But these types of efforts can sometimes be frustrating and will fall short if not effectively led.

For the past five years, I have been leading a cross-sector collaboration called Reimagining Service. Our goal: to convert good volunteer intentions into greater impact. Made up of leaders from nonprofits, government, business, and education, we worked side-by-side to bring new ideas, insights and practices to volunteer engagement.

Last month, we achieved our key objectives and brought our work to a close. In reflecting on my experience, I want to share some of the leadership lessons I learned from this multi-year, cross-sector effort.

Lesson 1: Lead from the front, side and back.
As a leader of a collaborative you have to think influence, not authority. Unlike a typical organizational structure where authority comes naturally from the leader's position or title, in a cross-sector effort leaders need to earn the respect and followership of its members. Since many collaboratives are made up of individuals a leader would consider as peers, leading from the side often works better than driving from the front. In some cases, the most effective approach can be leading from behind by observing, listening, and pushing the conversation without inserting a point-of-view.

Lesson 2: Identify the task, then select the right players.
A mistake I've experienced with collaborations is that the participants are recruited while the exact charter of the group is still under development. Once the task for the effort is well-defined, that's the time to draw up the list of players. The talent, resources and networks you'll need to be successful will be much clearer after your objectives are landed. With Reimagining Service, we were fortunate to have many talented participants with different skills help at various stages of the effort. Some were strong in the start-up phase due to their entrepreneurial mindset, some were great with strategy, analytics and concepts, and others were there to help operationalize ideas. You can also align with other networks to build momentum, enrich your ideas, and encourage ownership, so that people outside of the collaborative will work for your success.

Lesson 3: Treat all voices as equal and you'll hear new things.
Leaders need to acknowledge that there will likely be an incoming power imbalance between players in a cross-sector collaboration. One of your jobs is to give each voice equal weight and amplify those who may feel they have less of a say due to having fewer resources, a smaller scope or less public stature. You will get more out of the collective by fostering a culture of equals.

Lesson 4: Data can change the conversation.
Sometimes collaborations that bring together the usual suspects can result in each of us pulling out our entrenched beliefs about why something works and something else doesn't. I found that new information -- especially data-based information -- can catalyze new discussions, problem-solving, and collaboration. For example, with Reimagining Service, initial research showed us that only 11 percent of nonprofits were managing volunteers well and using them at any scale. This insight helped us understand both the challenge we were facing as well as the huge opportunity in front of us. We also studied the 11 percent to identify what they were doing well and what we learned became foundational to our work.

Lesson 5: Create enough credit to go around.
One of the things I spent time managing as a leader of a collaboration was ensuring that there was enough credit to go around. While most folks are driven by doing the good work, many participants in a collaborative also need to balance the needs of the greater good with the needs of their own organization. If one or two organizations or individuals get disproportionate credit for work, the spirit of collaboration may start to erode.

Lesson 6: Begin with the end in mind.
With Reimagining Service we started our work with the agreement that we didn't want to create a new nonprofit. We defined our effort as a time-bound campaign. At first we thought we'd be around for less than a year, then we agreed to form a council that would disband after three years (which turned into four). Knowing that our work would eventually come to an end helped us focus on the things that mattered and where we thought we could affect change. It also created a sense of urgency to get things done because there was a defined end point.

While all cross-sector collaboratives are unique and will vary depending on the players and issues involved, I hope these lessons and best practices prove useful and will help increase the impact that your work is seeking to make.

If you're interested in learning more about Reimagining Service, you can read this comprehensive report or visit our website, reimaginingservice.org.