Collaborative Leadership: Why It's a Winning Strategy

Last Updated Jan 3, 2011 2:31 PM EST

I've interviewed, or worked alongside, so many CEOs that I'm often asked what distinguishes the best of them. While it's hard to generalize, I've come to realize there is this profound differentiator:an ability to form successful partnerships.
  • Weak leaders don't believe they're successful unless someone else fails.
  • Outstanding leaders devise and execute rising tide strategies: success for one means success for all.
And this phenomenon is particularly evident in companies' relationships with vendors.

Partnerships are Fruitful
At The Fruit Guys, Chris Mittelstaedt is dedicated to delivering fresh, interesting fruit to businesses. His fruit boxes offer a sociable snack that's healthier than the usual pile of transfat-laden junk food found in most corporate kitchens. Key to The Fruit Guys business is the proposition that companies flourish when their employees are happy and healthy. But to fulfill that mission, Mittelstaedt needs a reliable supply of good, interesting, seasonal fresh fruit. This isn't as easy as it sounds - so he's started investing in helping, supporting, even sometimes funding imperiled fruit farmers. He understands that, for his business to grow, other businesses need to flourish too.

Similarly at Chipotle Grill, CEO Steve Ells places tremendous emphasis on working closely with family farms and local suppliers to ensure that the company gets the produce it needs while the farmers get the outlets they seek. This isn't sentiment: it is about ensuring supply which assures quality.

In the complex but wildly successful relationship between MGM Mirage and Cirque du Soleil, each partner is responsible solely for their area of expertise but each benefits the other: MGM provides cash and venues, Cirque brings in footfall and innovation. Each trusts the other to do well what they do best.

Business is not War
It may be an accident that the first two examples I can think of involve food. But there are many others: Louise Wannier's My Shape could not have succeeded without outstanding relationships with designers. Cordia Harrington's Tennessee Bun Company started with but grew beyond her dependency on McDonalds. What all of these leaders have in common is that they pay attention to the whole food chain that every business is necessarily involved in. They don't believe that the way to get rich is to make everyone else poor, that my victory requires your defeat. What they do appreciate is that being a good business partner takes time, commitment, attention and represents a gigantic competitive advantage.

Collaboration is a Talent
What does it take to be a good business partner?
Humility - because strategic partnering works when you appreciate your own weaknesses and plug them with someone else's strengths.

Patience - because partnerships take time. (Cirque du Soleil didn't consummate their deal with Disney until ten years after the first approach.)
Vision - because a wide perspective is needed if you aren't going to get entangled in games of one upmanship.

Partnering represents a profound competitive advantage. But many companies just can't do it. Any ideas why?

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.