Fast Company

The Hard Work of Collaborative Solutions

business menIn business school, everyone wanted to be the CEO--you know, the infallible one in the suit, with years of experience and wisdom, the one with all the answers.

What a bogus model. Turns out, the best leaders are the ones with the questions, the ones capable of forging collaborative networks.

Limiting problem solving models to the intelligence and experience that lives either in your head or even in your own organization is inadequate, if you engage in issues like minimizing environmental impact and carbon emissions across the global value chain. No, to problem solve on that scale, I think the leader has to start with a vision and a passion ... and the humility to recognize that the only way to solve the challenge is by assembling and motivating a group of disparate talents in a collaborative fashion. Ycch. It was much easier in the old days...

tan-your-hideThese days, we slog away at building effective, sustainable collaborative partnerships. If you want to change the way leather is tanned (and, you should want to change the way leather is tanned--too much energy used, too many chemicals utilized, etc.), no one--not even the big gorillas like our athletic competitors--can drive the change all by themselves. Nope--this kind of change demands "a village," a network of influence working together. For the Leather Working Group , this means we have to play in the sandbox with the strangest assortment of forces you can imagine--there, our arch competitor, there, a big supplier, there, a gaggle of edgy activist NGOs. Scientists, shoe salesmen, social activists, leather tanners. Bet you're happy you didn't get invited to that dinner party...

But it can work--and even in our relatively backwoods industry, it is starting to work. All of us who make up this collaborative network accept the reality we're faced with (want a solution, work together) and we work within it and around it. Never easy, but we've hammered out some "how to collaborate with people you don't normally hang out with" rules:

1. Check your grievances at the door. The fact that the guy next to you just beat you to market with the best new product innovation or raised the price per unit on your leather has no bearing on an issue as pervasive or complex as global climate change. There's no room for selfish in collaborative problem solving.

2. Leverage your differences. A conversation involving wildly disparate mind sets and skill sets can be very uncomfortable, but also wicked enlightening. Around the table sit the NGO with the activist's edge, the competitor with a commitment to the status quo and the supplier with a hundred reasons why it won't work ... but that just means there's more for us to learn from working together. "Different" isn't synonymous with "opposing" when it represents a new way of thinking about the problem and potential solutions.

3. Accept personal agendas. Everybody's got one: for us as an outdoor company, a healthy environment means more people buy more of our stuff. For NGOs, environmental "wins" mean more people will support them in future causes. Suppliers have their own angle, as do competitors, and so on. Just because we're all seeking some sort of personal gain doesn't mean we're not still working toward a common goal ... and in the case of collaborative partnerships, the why is a lot less interesting than the how.

silhouettes meetingCollaboration isn't about 50 people together in one room yessing each other's ideas, it's about respectfully challenging one another to think differently about meaningful solutions and sustainable outcomes. Easy work, no. The most valuable model we can apply to the most complex of our global issues, absolutely.

Business school promised a suit and a suite and omnipotence for the CEO. Things dreams are made of...

Read more of Jeff Swartz's blog For the Greener Good

JBS-casual-hatJeff Swartz is the third generation of the Swartz family to lead Timberland. His grandfather Nathan started the predecessor company to Timberland in 1952. Jeff's father Sidney and his uncle Herman launched the Timberland brand in the early 1970s. Jeff was promoted to President and CEO in 1998, after working in virtually every functional area of the company since 1986. Under Jeff's leadership, Timberland has grown rapidly.

Timberland today competes in countries around the world, designing, manufacturing and marketing footwear, apparel and accessories for men, women and children. Timberland has been listed on Business Ethics magazine's list of 100 Best Corporate Citizens and in 2002, Timberland received the Ron Brown Award, a Presidential award recognizing outstanding corporate leadership in social responsibility. Follow Jeff Swartz on Twitter @Timberland_Jeff

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