Radical Collaboration – Interview with Jim Tamm (Part 2)

When I spoke to Jim Timm, the author of Radical Collaboration, in early November, we still didn’t know that Donald Trump would be elected President just two days later. In the second part of our interview (find part one here), Jim takes a critical look at the curriculum of business schools across the world, gives examples of collaboration in the highly contested field of U.S. politics, and throws in some valuable tips as to what corporate leaders can do to foster collaboration in their organizations.

Arne: Jim, you run a lot of workshops, both in-house and open events to which people sign up individually. What do participants usually point out as their biggest pain points in their careers and work environments, and how can Radical Collaboration help with that?

Jim: The biggest problem I hear about among leaders is poor relationships. There was a study done at the Center for Creative Leadership where they were looking at “executive derailment”. They studied managers and leaders who were seen as rising stars in their organizations. “Derailed” means that they were forced to retire early, they were outright fired, or they plateaued at a level that was lower than everybody thought they would reach. The number one reason for their derailment was poor relationships. This showed up in a lot of different ways: they were arrogant, they weren’t problem-solvers, they wouldn’t share credit, they were bad at communications. When leaders get into trouble, it’s almost always about relationships. It’s usually not because they lack technical skills, it’s because they can’t make the people work. That’s the biggest pain point I hear from leaders.
From people farther down in the organization, I guess it’s that the organization does not support their efforts, doesn’t listen, wants them to just carry out the things they are supposed to do, and doesn’t give them the tools, training and resources for them to be effective in their jobs.

“The skill that is the most needed by industry is the worst taught in universities”

Arne: What some of the people that we work with tell us when they try to make their organizations more democratic is that a lot of their staff struggle with this new amount of responsibility. Holding themselves accountable for the results of their work and for the process does not come easily to many of the employees. What is really the key in order to increase the level to which staff members can take accountability?

Jim: I think it’s twofold. One, you have to figure out who’s able and willing to take more accountability, because there are some people who simply don’t want to do that. It’s like “I didn’t sign on for this, so don’t ask me to make those decisions. I am not in charge, I’m not the boss, tell me what to do and I’ll carry that out.” So it’s finding the right people, and if you’ve got the wrong people, don’t try to put them in that role.

The second thing is, you’d better give people you expect to go into that role some support and training for how to do that. How can you build relationships? How can you solve problems? How can you negotiate your way through conflict in a way that supports the organization and the relationship? Because that is not a skill that is typically trained in any schools. Most of the MBA and executive leadership programs I have taught in don’t do a very good job of teaching employees how to work as a team and how to relate with other employees.

There was a survey done in Mexico recently where they were looking at the number one skills that industry leaders said was lacking in people coming out of school. And it was the ability to work together with other people, especially on a team. The study also looked at how business schools were teaching this skill. Collaboration was absolutely the worst in how it was being taught. So here you have a situation where the skill that is the most needed by industry is the worst taught in universities. What that means is that when companies hire their new employees, they have to be prepared to teach them how work together with other people. Most organizations are not ready to do that. They think, “Wait a minute, we should hire people that already know that.” That’s great if you can find them, but for the most part, they don’t have those skills, so you have to able to give it to them.

“It’s tragic that we are so bad at collaboration in politics”

Arne: You’re raising some crucial points that connect to larger societal and economic topics. What is your take on the relevance of collaboration when you look at the economy and the political system as a whole? As of today, we are two days away from the presidential elections in the U.S. How can more collaboration be brought into these larger structures?

Jim: I think it’s tragic that we are so bad at it in politics. In the U.S. anyway, I’ve seen it get worse over my lifetime. It used to be the people that really got a lot of things done were those that could reach across the aisle and work with their colleagues, whether they were Democrats or Republicans. For example, we have two Democratic senators in California. Diane Feinstein regularly worked with Republicans to get legislation passed, and she got a lot of good legislation passed – very bipartisan. We have another one, Barbara Boxer, who is like the pitbull, and that was her job. She would go out and she would attack, attack, attack. She got nothing done almost. When you look at the amount of quality legislation passed, the one senator that was much more skilled at collaboration got a huge amount done. The one that was a pitbull got no legislation passed, but kept getting elected, but that’s what the job was – to make the other side look bad.

Just like the Republicans did with Obama. They had one goal in mind, and that was to prevent him from getting a second term. They couldn’t have cared less about any legislation, it was just, “Make him fail”. We’re going to see it after this election to, I’m afraid. My only hope is that if Hillary Clinton gets elected, because there have been so many defections from the Republican Party against Donald Trump, that she may be able to forge some bipartisan support. She was pretty effective at that when she was a senator in New York.

It’s one of those things that I find very discouraging, that politics over the past twenty, thirty years has really deteriorated into name calling and into being so much more adversarial than it was. In politics in the U.S., we’ve seen that go in cycles. We tend to think that this is the worst it’s ever been, and the truth of the matter is, it was even much worse early on in our history. Candidates used to duel with and shoot each other, and we forget that. I am hoping that this will pass, but I think there is something going on on the world stage right now, that there’s a lot of people who feel disenfranchised. I think we saw that with Brexit – that was a shocker of an election. I think it’s the same type of disenfranchisement that drove people to support Donald Trump, and drove people to support Bernie Sanders, who are at opposite extremes in the political spectrum. The mainstream political leaders had better start paying attention to that, and hopefully they will.

“Fostering collaboration isn’t like trying to get to the moon and back”

Arne: We’ll see in a few days. My last question goes back to fostering collaboration in businesses. We do see some encouraging signs, sometimes born out of the need to engage with each other. We see a lot of big corporations in Germany working with start-ups, learning from each other and bringing more agility into large organizations. If among our readers there was someone who wanted to make a change in their company and didn’t quite know how to get started, what would you recommend them as a first small step in order to increase collaboration?

Arne Reis (second from left) with Radical Collaboration experts Jim Tamm (left), Celeste Blackman and Ron Luyet
Arne Reis (second from left) with Radical Collaboration experts Jim Tamm (left), Celeste Blackman and Ron Luyet

Jim: First, find a good consultant that is familiar with collaborative skills. There are a number of good books out there on collaboration; obviously the one I’d recommend the most is Radical Collaboration – take a look at it and see how it stacks up to what’s going on in their organization. There are a number of collaborative skills climate surveys that people can seek out to get a better diagnosis of what is really going on in their organization. Where I have seen it be most effective is where someone in a leadership role says, “I want to change this. This is not good enough the way it is right now.” That’s the number one thing. If you have a champion in the organization that says, “I believe we can do better.”

Figure out what the limiting factors are, where they need to get better, and then find someone that can teach those skills. These are not difficult, complex skills that take years to learn. You can learn most of these collaboration skills in a few days, and practice in a short period of time, and it can have a huge, immediate impact. It’s all practical stuff – basic communication skills, basic negotiation skills, it’s paying more attention to your own defensiveness. Organizations today are completely unaware about how much they’re spending, how much money they’re wasting because people are getting defensive. So if you can increase people’s self-awareness in small ways, in short periods of time, that’s going to have big payoffs. It isn’t like you are trying to get to the moon and back. You can take a few small steps, and it will have a big impact in a very short period of time.

Arne: Thank you very much for those encouraging words of closure. I do look forward to collaborating with you in the future, and to bringing this work to many more organizations that want to make a difference.

Jim: I look forward to that, too. Thank you, this is always a pleasure.


Header: Ted Eytan (creative commons license)
Group picture: Arne Reis

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