Guide to collaborative leadership skills at work

Collaborative leadership is about getting feedback from the people you lead. Collaborative leaders collect more data about a situation, resulting in better business decisions and employee happiness.
collaborative leader smiling in front of pink background

Teamshares aims to create $10 billion of stock wealth for hard-working Americans. Since inception, we’ve known that we can’t achieve this ambitious vision alone.

Our philosophy of collaborative leadership starts with our co-founders and extends to the more than 65 presidents of our network companies, who are leading their fellow employee owners to 80% company ownership within 20 years.

We sat down with first-time president Elizabeth E., who has been practicing collaborative leadership since her first management role in a coffee shop, to collect some of her insights.

By leading with collaboration, Elizabeth empowers her team to make thoughtful decisions within their scope of work, so she can focus on improving standard operating procedures (SOPs).

In doing so, Elizabeth will create financial growth for her company while helping her fellow employee owners reach their personal and professional goals.

Collaborative leadership definition

“Collaborative leadership is soliciting as much information as you can to understand a problem and the best options to go forward,” Elizabeth states.

"Leading collaboratively happens through consensus and getting feedback and input from the people I’m leading.”

Initially unknown to her, Elizabeth has been leading with this leadership style since her first time holding a traditional management role in a coffee shop.

Elizabeth recalls how that experience opened her eyes to the importance of feedback in decision-making.

“I didn’t want to change things if it was going to make the whole staff quit,” she explains.

“When I was trying to tighten up processes or change schedules, I made sure the changes were going to resonate with the team. I found [the collaborative approach] to be really successful.”

That mindset has stuck with Elizabeth.

“Collaboration has always been a big part of how I’ve led teams since then. I don’t want to be the unilateral decision maker.”

Collaborative leadership traits

Elizabeth recalls leading with a collaborative style from her earliest experiences as a manager, though it wasn’t always through conscious action.

“[This type of leadership] probably started from a place of fear,” she speculates. “I didn’t want to make a mistake. I was in this new leadership role. I had been trained, but all of a sudden I had this responsibility. I was the one who was bearing the potential negative outcomes.”

While once a fear-based reaction to new responsibility, collaboration became Elizabeth’s core leadership style.

“I found success and learned from my team by soliciting their opinions.”

A collaborative leadership style comprises many traits, but the few that ring true for all presidents at Teamshares network companies are empathy, openness, and a growth mindset.

  • Empathy: To collaborate well, leaders must genuinely care about employee feelings and ideas, create a relationship of ongoing feedback, and encourage others to recognize and celebrate wins.
  • Openness: A collaborative leader keeps employees informed about the business, explains the reasoning behind their decisions, welcomes and gives feedback openly, and asks open-ended questions while actively listening to responses.
  • Growth mindset: Organizational collaboration creates top-line revenue and the growth of employees and self. A collaborative leader supports employees and gives them room to make and learn from their mistakes.

A collaborative culture takes time to build. To find success, leaders must be empathetic to employees experiencing change, be transparent with decision-making, and, ultimately, keep the bigger picture in mind. Doing so develops trust and recognition of dependability as a leader.

Setting realistic expectations for employees

In organizations that value collaboration, employees constantly share ideas.

As a leader, prioritizing and setting expectations to implement employees’ ideas is just as important as building a culture that encourages sharing them.

After being onboarded into the role, Elizabeth approached supervisor-level employee owners at her network company who were eager to see their ideas come to fruition.

Many shared that they would value a manager-specific meeting when Elizabeth took over at the network company. While she agreed the meeting was something that she’d like to implement, her timeline was different than what employee owners expected.

“I had gotten a lot of ideas from employee owners, and had all the information I needed to prioritize and set the plans into motion,” she explains. “But there was a delay between idea and execution, which made some employee owners think I didn’t understand, because they were telling me the same things two or three times.”

“It’s one of those things where my role is fairly opaque,” she says.

“There’s an opportunity for me to be more transparent, to communicate more often about the things on my plate, and to invite insight on how to prioritize my time.”

To help set expectations, Elizabeth was open with the employee owners and asked:

  • “What do you want me to prioritize?”
  • “What are the things that will make the company better today?”

Her openness helped lay a foundation for a new people-first culture where employee owners have input on change. In turn, they feel valued and make better decisions in their day-to-day tasks to ultimately improve the bottom line.

How to build a collaborative leadership model in organizations

A collaborative leadership model creates the best business outcomes through better decision-making.

“If I’m not leveraging [everyone’s] insights, I’m not doing the best I can for the project or client or whatever I’m working on,” Elizabeth explains.

To adopt a collaborative leadership model, organizations must:

  1. Practice inclusive participation
  2. Have a distributed leadership team
  3. Build an ownership culture
  4. Find mutual support

Step 1: Foster inclusive participation

Collaborative leaders enthusiastically seek and encourage input from all members of their team. In doing so, companies become more innovative, generate better business outcomes, and inspire a happier, more engaged workforce.

Building this type of culture is not inherent or immediate.

“It’s shifting away from the model where everyone went to the former owner for every single decision because they were the one who could answer it,” Elizabeth explains, of her efforts to build this type of collaborative mindset with her fellow employee owners.

In collaborative organizations, all employees are encouraged to speak up and take initiative on matters related to business improvement. Still, leaders are ultimately responsible for decisions and outcomes.

Step 2: Create a distributed leadership team

A collaborative leadership model means spreading day-to-day operations among more team members than in a single-owner model. By spreading out an otherwise concentrated responsibility, companies become more efficient and cross-functional.

To create a distributed leadership team, Elizabeth is focusing on emulating her ideal of what a leader looks like.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for me to come in and model what leadership can be because a lot of the team doesn’t know what leadership with a capital “L” is.”

She explains how, in the culture she inherited, it was normal for each employee to go to the now-retired owner for questions big and small.

“Now I’m pushing that accountability down to my managers, so they’re the first line for questions from the team.”

“People should feel like I don’t need to be the end-all-be-all for every task,” she continues. “It’s about building trust in the team, so they feel like their managers are the right people to ask. And, in turn, I have to give that trust and respect to the managers.”

When presidents are solely responsible for task-level decisions, they can become mired in the details instead of the big picture.

For Teamshares network companies, distributed leadership means the day-to-day is run by both the president and an operations manager(s), with key differences in responsibilities:

  • Presidents manage overall company strategy, growth, and innovation.
  • Operations managers make that strategy a reality by ensuring the business runs smoothly day-to-day, managing tasks such as scheduling and ordering.

Within a distributed leadership team, employees are encouraged to take more ownership of their own tasks without looking for permission to do the things they’re equipped to do themselves.

Apply to become a small business president of an employee-owned company near you.

Step 3: Build an ownership culture

In a collaborative culture, employees must foster an ownership mindset. With this mindset, they start making better, more thoughtful, and more efficient task-level decisions. Over time, these decisions can profoundly improve a company’s bottom line.

For leaders to build a culture of ownership, they must actively encourage employee initiative and help them to understand their value on the team.

To understand each employee owner’s goals and values, Elizabeth starts with a candid conversation, highlighting their value to the company.

“I ask if they like what they’re doing now or if they want to develop. Either way, I think it’s fine; they’re an asset. I just want to know where I should be devoting my time and effort in the company so [I know] what’s going to make them want to stay.”

When employees feel like they own their sphere of influence, they make better decisions in their daily tasks to help the company work toward a collective goal.

As seen in Teamshares’ 80+ network companies, when employee owners are shareholders of a business, they have better job security and higher morale. In turn, company profits grow, stock value increases, and the nation’s wealth gap narrows.

Step 4: Find mutual support

Without a support network, leadership can be lonely. A genuinely collaborative manager seeks advice from a trusted peer group.

At Teamshares, that community comes automatically within the Teamshares Accelerator. As part of a network of 65+ small business presidents, leaders are encouraged to interact in person and online to support one another on an otherwise lonely journey.

“When I’ve had specific questions or situations, I’ve been able to reach out to the network to get connected to the right person to get insights,” Elizabeth says of her experience within the network.

“The willingness of people to share their experience and expertise, and also be humble and acknowledge that every situation is unique has been really helpful,” she continues.

“We’re all learning from each other, and I’ve really benefited from having people who understand my questions and can provide a gut check.”

How to become a collaborative leader (advice for new managers)

For new managers to become more collaborative, Elizabeth emphasizes the importance of being genuine, building trust, and ultimately cultivating self-awareness.

She explains that building trust requires “understanding folks’ goals and then working with them to achieve those goals in a sustainable way.”

Beyond the big picture, new managers should focus on small, genuine actions to build trust on a regular basis. In one instance, Elizabeth used her garden-grown zucchini to bake chocolate-chip zucchini bread for the team.

“Make decisions in a spirit of transparency, integrity, and teamwork—those values will trickle down to the right people.”

Elizabeth has been practicing collaborative leadership since her first management role in a coffee shop. She emphasizes the importance of being aware of potential weaknesses for continued growth. New and tenured managers should cultivate self-awareness and lean on a trusted peer group for essential feedback.

“Some of the pitfalls I have to watch out for are things like not being forceful enough in asserting my own opinions because I’m spending too much time soliciting everyone else’s opinions,” Elizabeth explains.

Being self-aware gives Elizabeth insight into where she should focus to make sure she’s not discounting her own experience in the decision-making process.

Ultimately, she has learned that collaboration is not immediate.

“The company culture shift will take time,” she advises. “Keep extending trust to the team. Keep demonstrating that you are worthy of their trust. People that want that will flourish. Make decisions in a spirit of transparency, integrity, and teamwork, and those values will trickle down to the right people.”

Teamshares has developed a model of collaborative leadership to enhance employee ownership. This distributed management model creates financially successful outcomes for both companies and their employee shareholders.

If you’re a collaborative, growth-minded leader who wants to make an immediate impact, apply to become a president of a Teamshares network company.

Teamshares writers follow strict principles for sourcing credible information within articles. Any outside information including direct quotes, paraphrased information, and concepts that are derived from external sources adhere to our standards for accuracy and transparency.

E., Elizabeth. Interview. Conducted by Jessie Baker, 15 Sept. 2022.

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