Why Unexpected Partnerships Lead to the Best Results

by Debra Bednar-Clark

As a leadership consultant and coach I connect with business leaders every day from a variety of industries who are talking about the same thing: change, disruption, innovation and growth. They’re searching for the right talent — people to create a culture that nurtures innovation and creativity. So I was intrigued when, last week, one of my favorite recruiters asked me to take part in an event called “Competition through Collaboration: Partnership is the New Leadership.”

I should mention that this was a recruiter with whom I’d always had enlightened conversations about things like yoga and whole-self-wellness, which aren’t typical topics for a recruiter handling your executive job search. About 30 women from her expansive network of female leaders would be attending. As I would soon learn, the goal of this gathering was to explore unexpected partnerships as a possible solution to the talent challenge.

When I arrived at her place in Tribeca, I was greeted by a fantastic and friendly group of women — a professor from Columbia, a campaign strategist for Hillary Clinton, a Creative Director from Williams-Sonoma, a former Digital Lead at Planned Parenthood, a VP of Talent at SYPartners, and an experiential design leader at Johnson & Johnson. Never one to conform, she hadn’t simply sent out a blanket invite to her contacts to gather critical mass for a networking event. The guest list was carefully — and strategically — composed. Here’s what she did:

  • She reviewed her database of over 100,000 contacts.
  • She categorized people based on industry, role and expertise.
  • She highlighted those within each category who embodied a key attribute that she believed was critical for collaboration and creativity.

The result? A different kind of collaboration, led by a diverse and passionate group of female leaders across disciplines and industries, all focused on one of the most pressing business challenges faced by each of our organizations.

The evening began with a simple question: What is the top issue that your organization is currently struggling with? We wrote our answers on sticky notes, stuck them to the wall and then voted on our favorite responses. We arrived at four challenges to be solved.

Attendees voting on our business challenges.

We then broke off into individual groups to discuss them. When we reconvened, the solutions we had come up with blew me away.

For example, how do you retain quality as you grow your business? Hire a Chief Well Being Officer. Yes, you heard that correctly, a Chief Well Being Officer! The way this group connected the dots between employee, wellness, product quality and business growth was remarkable and exactly the kind of solution you get when you mix startup leaders with non-profit leaders, corporate leaders with gig-economy leaders, artists with lawyers and educators with technologists.

It also reminded me why this function is so desperately needed within every organization.

Working in smaller groups to identify solutions.

Whether you’re a business leader, people manager, HR leader or individual contributor you can build on this approach to see what kind of solutions you uncover. Here are a few tips that I’ve seen work throughout my career to foster creativity, innovation and growth, all of which were reinforced and reimagined at this event.

Change What You’re Looking For

Whenever I’m asked how I’ve built highly successful teams for companies during their pivotal years of growth, my answer is always the same: They are beautifully messy.

But so many companies continue to hire the same kinds of employees for the same kinds of roles, even though the challenges they’re facing are increasingly complex and evolving rapidly. At Facebook I sought expertise from every perspective possible, hiring traditional brand managers, art directors, writers, designers, data scientists, producers and videographers. Why? Because marketing is a blend of art + science. Uniting these different disciplines, my teams developed innovative solutions for the world’s greatest marketers that reflected the dynamic nature of social media.

Build a Team of Kindred Spirits

Every company I’ve worked for has had an intensive interview process that relies on myriad stakeholders to assess a candidate’s potential and combat unconscious bias. And while there’s no question experience and skill are essential to mastering and succeeding in any role, they’re table stakes. It’s also critical to identify the key attributes that are most important to your company’s growth and culture.

At the end of the day there are three questions I always asked myself about a candidate before making any hiring decision:

  1. Do they believe in the mission?
  2. Are they brilliant and humble?
  3. Do they have an entrepreneurial spirit?

For me this has always been a winning combination in terms of producing results and creating a thriving culture. What attributes matter most to you in making a hiring decision?

Get Outside of Your Industry

One of my favorite clients who works for a fashion magazine encourages her team to attend tech summits and conferences. Why? As she’s trying to evolve her business from print to digital, she needs her team to evolve so they can understand the digital culture, including its ecosystem, vernacular, products, approaches and nomenclature.

If you’re someone who has worked in print your entire career, transitioning to digital can be daunting. But the more you surround yourself with people who live and breathe the discipline, you’ll gradually become more comfortable and confident with a new medium. This level of awareness and understanding will help trigger new ideas that respect the legacy of print, as well as the today and tomorrow of digital.

Make Yourself Vulnerable to New Ideas

In my experience growth and comfort cannot coexist, which is a reality that was reaffirmed by this event. You need to make yourself vulnerable to new ideas. That may seem threatening or confusing at first. But it’s exactly this vulnerability — the kind we feel when we are part of an unexpected partnership, formed with a common mission — that inspires collaboration, ignites creativity and creates the best results.

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