What I've Learned About Collaboration From My Daughters

This post is part of the HBR Insight Center Making Collaboration Work.

I was sitting last week with my older daughter Kate in a restaurant in Ashland, Oregon, as she described the extraordinary experience she's had as the assistant director of The Pirates of Penzance at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival during the past three months.

Kate has learned a lot about directing a large-scale musical, but the most important lessons she absorbed from working with Bill Rauch, Artistic Director of the festival as well as the director of Pirates, have been about collaboration.

"He surrounds himself," Kate told me, "with people whose creativity, intellect, and ability he believes in deeply. Once he's made the decision to bring a person aboard, he never waivers in his confidence in that person's gifts and brilliance. As a collaborator, you feel compelled to prove him right."

I spent much of my early career as a journalist. Much of the time, I felt I was defending the words I'd labored over from editors who wanted to change them, or cut the piece to a certain length, or simply put their mark on what I'd written. It was more adversarial than collaborative. Too often, I didn't feel treated with care, or sensitivity, or respect.

Thirteen years ago, I left journalism to work with a partner on developing a curriculum around helping people more skillfully manage their lives, especially at work. Because we lived in different cities, we developed a practice of working over the phone for two hours every morning, starting at 7 am. The sense of mutual respect was unspoken, but powerful.

There was no pride of ownership. Instead, our practice was to throw our ideas out into the space between us. Then we'd have at them -- turning them over, rearranging them, even attacking them in favor of better ideas. The only thing that mattered was creating something richer, deeper, simpler and smarter. We both believed we could produce something better collaboratively than either of us could working alone. The joy when we nailed it felt magical. It never occurred to us to parse who contributed to what. Until, one day, it did.

The change happened slowly, invisibly, insidiously, over time. Egos got involved. Credit emerged as an issue. For years, it was only about creating something great together. Ultimately, it became about who was contributing more. The partnership foundered, and then, finally, it fractured.

Trust, I learned, lies at the very heart of collaboration. Once ours began to fray, it inexorably unraveled.

I find myself reflecting on this now, a decade later, because I've entered another collaboration that feels magical in a very different way. It's with my younger daughter Emily, who works with me at The Energy Project.

Emily edits the blogs and articles I write. For the first time in my life I have an editor I totally and implicitly trust. I trust Emily's discerning intelligence. I trust she has no other agenda beyond helping me to write the best pieces possible. I trust she'll always tell me exactly what she thinks. And finally, I trust that she not only respects me, but also cares deeply about me. And of course I care deeply about her.

Emily does two things that fuel my trust. She gets me to look honestly and objectively at what I've written, as she does. She also makes me feel loved and valued, whatever she has to say.

I don't have to take Emily's advice, but I nearly always do. The same is true when she fearlessly brings my attention to some misstep she believes I've made with one of our colleagues.

One of the things Kate told me she'd come to deeply understand this summer is that when two smart people vehemently disagree, the answer is almost never to fight it out until one idea prevails, but rather to vigilantly search for a third, better way.

That doesn't mean a compromise, but rather a recognition that when two smart collaborators can't agree, there's probably something not quite right in either of their solutions. "On his desk," Kate told me, "Bill has a framed picture of the word 'Yes.' He lives by that ethic. He's always about finding the part of what someone says that is new, or provocative, or different."

That's the perspective I want to bring to all my collaborations. Yes, I respect you. Yes, I care about you. Yes, you have something unique to contribute.

Collaboration can't mean pure democracy. At a certain point, the leader must make a decision. But if the process is truly collaborative, the outcome will reflect that.

There may be no more central challenge for leaders than to believe deeply in the people they lead. At times, that means believing more deeply in them than they do in themselves.

What an unbelievable gift to have learned these lessons from my daughters. The child is father to the man.

Reprinted from Harvard Business Review

Tony Schwartz is President and CEO of The Energy Project, a company that helps individuals and organizations fuel energy, engagement, focus, and productivity by harnessing the science of high performance. Tony's most recent book, The Way We're Working Isn't Working: The Four Forgotten Needs that Energize Great Performance, was published in May 2010 and became an immediate The New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. Follow him on Twitter @TonySchwartz.

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