Public Leadership and the Collaboration Imperative

It's an approach that's critical for the public sector. A San Francisco project illustrates the qualities that are needed.
August 12, 2015
By Frieda K. Edgette  |  Contributor
Leader of Oakland, Calif.-based Novos Consulting

Collaborative leadership is the ability to inspire and bring about collective action across diverse stakeholder groups to achieve a shared goal. These leaders consciously engage people, departments and systems outside their immediate control.

Nowhere is this form of leadership more important than in the public sector, where the interests of diverse cultures, operating norms, domains and traditions must be reconciled to overcome the inevitable resistance to change.

To address today's governance challenges, the tactical skills of effective collaborative public leadership are not only valuable, they are critical to success. Yet a collaborative approach doesn't come naturally to many public leaders, particularly those who have come into government from other management cultures.

So how does effective collaborative leadership work? The story of how the San Francisco Business Portal, the city's one-stop shop for starting and growing a business, was created illustrates a half-dozen qualities that collaborative leaders exercise to unite and effort across divides:

Collaborative leaders create shared purpose that addresses the needs of all impacted partners. Shared purpose keeps partners united and focused. This can take the form of a mission statement. In San Francisco, the business permitting process has long frustrated business and public employees alike. Eighteen departments are involved. There are a total of 400 permits. Aspiring restaurateurs seeking to open a business, for example, must secure 24 different permits which require engaging 11 city departments and several state agencies. The mission was clear: have all the information small business owners need to start, stay and grow in San Francisco in one place.

They have a "Mission Possible" mindset. Collaborative leaders are acutely focused on the long-term goal, putting mission before personalities, resistance to change, interagency conflict, resource constraints and skepticism. These leaders engage through open-ended questioning and nonjudgmental inquiry -- conversations that require courage, focus, humility and openness. For the Business Portal, initial (and natural) skepticism was engaged through listening tours and ongoing active listening. Concerns were addressed head-on through respectful and honest discussion.

They model from the top. This sets the tone throughout the system. Turf wars and politics are set aside. To begin the business portal project, Mayor Ed Lee convened a meeting with affected department heads to share the mission, explain its reasoning and solicit feedback. He asked department heads for their commitment to making the initiative a priority and communicating that resolve to their teams.

They engage the whole ecosystem early and often. Collaborative leaders think strategically about the kinds of partnerships and the types of skills that will benefit the new policy or service. Then they engage in respectful, productive and mission-focused discussion. For the portal, the mayor shared the vision. Department heads engaged their teams. All permitting departments participated in a kickoff meeting and maintained ongoing communication on content. An advisory body comprising the three most impacted and knowledgeable departments -- the Department of Technology, the Office of Small Business, and the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development -- shared technical guidance throughout. Front-line employees shared experiences, expertise and offered ongoing counsel. Business owners were asked for their perspective and assisted the project team in developing the user experience.

They are realistic about what others can offer and achieve. They anticipate barriers to action, such as limited departmental resources, fiscal-year timing and even seasonal attrition. They factor such realities into an action plan via clearly outlined roles and responsibilities, communications and operations systems, and progress metrics. The portal project team acted as system connectors, keeping partners informed through a transparent action plan and frequent feedback loops that were agile, often impromptu and always forward-focused.

They recognize the value of emotional intelligence and work it. Collaborative leaders are patient. They empathize. They're respectful. They appreciate the time, insights and perspectives of their partners. As the process of building the San Francisco Business Portal illustrates, collaboration takes time and people need validation to stay inspired.