Learning how to lead or work in a team is not easy. Even if you are part of a team, chances are that you are not being an ideal team member or a leader. As strong as this statement may seem, it is the hard truth.
Many organizations fail to reach their full potential even with the best idea and the best product primarily because of this. While hierarchical leadership has its place in the organizations, the modern work world also requires teams to practice collaborative leadership at all levels.
Young professionals who have a few years of work experience need these collaborative leadership skills to better succeed in their professional life. While they pick up some of these skills as they work, it takes them years and a lot of dedicated effort to do so.
Several organizations and management schools try to address this gap with theoretical frameworks, but it is not easy to put them into practice.
This is where our Collaborative Leadership Program helps address this gap. Unlike theoretical learning, the learning that participants get from the program is deeply internalized. It becomes a part of their being. The experience changes them. The best Management schools in India understand this. That is why some of the top IIMs bring their students on this program every year.
The program is designed to help participants practice collaborative leadership — they learn to share control and avoid power struggle, to create an environment that enables others to lead in their area of responsibility, to build connections with other teams and stakeholders and to leverage the diversity in a team and tap its collective intelligence.
In a matter of a 4-day trek, the participants come back better prepared to handle the collaborative demands of their organization.
I saw this unfold firsthand in August, when I helped facilitate a Collaborative Leadership Program for students of Goa Institute of Management. Today, I want to share 4 concrete ways in which each of them came back home as better collaborative leaders.
A little bit about the Collaborative Leadership Program
Before I dive into the lessons that came out of the program, I want to share some background on the Collaborative Leadership Program.
The Collaborative Leadership Program is an Experiential Learning Program. The participants are put together in teams of 7-10. They are then given the challenge of planning and executing an entire trek. The support from Indiahikes is minimal. They trek together, navigate the trail, set up and wind up camp (this comes with preparing their own meals as well).
A big part of the collaborative leadership program is the execution of the trek, for which the participants are in charge.
While Indiahikes supports them intensively on day 1, we slowly shift the responsibility of the trek execution on them. By the end of day 3, the success of the trek depends entirely on how collaboratively they function as a team.
The act of doing the entire trek together in unknown settings puts them out of their comfort zone. Over the 4 days, doing the trek together while reflecting on how they worked as a team brings out the learning from their experience.
An outline of how the program started off with the students of Goa Institute of Management:
The MBA students of Goa Institute of Management (GIM) had joined this program on our Hampta Pass trek, a moderate trek that goes to a highest altitude of 14,000 ft.
On day 1, the team was a collection of 34 individuals who wanted to take a break from their busy schedules. They looked at it as a vacation in the mountains. Apart from 2-3 students who had done a Himalayan trek, none of the others had trekked before. They had no understanding of the challenge of the trek, or what it takes to execute a trek by themselves.
Knowing that they had to complete the trek as a team, they put down their plan as to how they would go about it. They also put down the norms under which they would operate as a team. They knew that to succeed in the trek, they needed to leverage each other’s strengths and work together as a team.
But that was the extent of their understanding.
They did not factor in the physical and mental limitations of team members, the hardships on a high-altitude trek, where a simple task like cooking a meal can test your mettle. They did not consider what it meant to stick together as a team through these hardships.
Sticking together as a team the high-altitude has its challenges. Knowing this, the team a plan together on how to go about it. Sandeep UC
They had a challenging Day 2. They struggled physically and mentally.
Many of them who were physically weaker suffered from the challenges of the trek. They were unable to carry their backpack. They couldn’t keep up with the pace required for them to complete the day’s trek.
Many also developed symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) — headache, fatigue and bad case of vomiting. A lot of them also developed loose motions.
The stronger team members stepped up in different ways. Some shared the load of others, some took on the role of personally assisting people.
But I could see the teams crumbling by the end of Day 2. They were all 2 hours behind the average trekking time. In the team of 34, apart from 9 fit participants, the others were physically suffering. As time went by, the idea of how they wanted to work as a team was heavily tested.
The situation was dire. At the beginning of Day 3, I gathered them together. I told them that we were not going to cross the pass. I told them that they were not ready for the challenge of the trek.
While they did what they could to support each other, they were not collaborating as leaders. They did not own the trek. They did not confront each other and held each other accountable. They did not feel that they had equal stakes on the success of the program.
I told them that if they wanted to cross the pass, they needed to change how they worked.
By the end of day 4, things took a U-turn. Not only did they cross the Hampta pass, they crossed it 2 hours ahead of the predicted time.
I have to put things in perspective here. Our regular well prepared trekkers generally take about 12 hours to cross the Hampta pass. Here was a team of young students who were not physically prepared for the trek, did not know how to trek, did not have weather on their side, and the team was much larger than our regular teams.
What made them achieve their goals?
In a collaborative situation, participants learnt to put the team before their own self interest
When the program started, they all started in very good spirits. They set norms for themselves as a team, put all their management strategies in action and started well.
They wanted to succeed as a team. Yet when the situation became dire and they were told that they cannot cross the pass, their initial reaction was disappointment and frustration. They said that they had come all this way not to go back but to cross the pass.
They were even willing to leave behind their weaker team members and cross the pass without them. The team’s goal didn’t matter. Their self interest came first.
On the other hand, the ones who suffered immensely on day 2 said that we should allow people who could cross the pass to go ahead. They were willing to step aside and not give their best for their team. They were willing to let go of the goal for the fear of pulling others down.
This is a normal human reaction to a challenging situation. We are tuned to put our self interest over the interest of the team or the organisation. But organisations are not designed for such behaviours. Organisations can very well die if every team member behaves this way.
Our program mimicked that. I told them that this cannot be. We would not cross the pass, unless everyone of us could cross the pass. Unless they decided to collectively quit the program, we would not leave anyone behind. That was our reality.
This forced them to reconsider their initial affirmation. They realised the weight of what it meant when I said that they would not succeed if they did not work collaboratively. They had to rethink how they looked at success.
Every organisation goes through their ups and downs. While we are comfortable sticking to the team norms during our high times, we tend to focus on ourselves when the down time hits the team.
During that time, learning to take a step back and put the team’s interest above the interest of self is what helps the team get to success.
It was a hard hitting lesson for GIM students to understand what it meant to prioritise the team’s interest over their own self.
Participants learnt that the stakes of the team members are the same as the stakes of the assigned leader
When the students realised that they were either crossing the pass together or quitting together, the dynamics changed. The stakes suddenly got real. It was not enough for a few to do their best. It was mandated that everyone did their best.
On Day 2 in the evening, before I started a meeting with them, many were complaining about how tough the program was. Some felt guilty of asking for help. They felt that they were pulling the team down. The morale was down.
Immediately after our conversation, there was a shift in how the teams went about Day 3 of the trek. They were not mere passengers. They became active participants. They held themselves accountable for their performance. They also collaborated better for their team’s performance.
In the working world, we are often taught that team leaders have a higher stake in the outcome of the work, whereas in reality, every team member (junior or senior) has an equal stake in the outcome. Teams that are able to instil this sense of emotional ownership end up achieving more than what they set out to do.
This outlook is hard to rewire as it's so deeply ingrained in most work cultures these days. But the program design forced it as an outcome.
Participants learnt to have uncomfortable conversations rather than to accept comfortable disharmony
As the students learnt to take ownership of the team’s success and failures, they also learnt to have uncomfortable conversations.
I remember an instance clearly. We were on our way to Balu Ka Gera. We stopped to do a small exercise as a team. The team succeeded in finishing the exercise, but they took a long time to achieve the end result — reflecting on how they were working together as a team. A group of 8 did not have an assigned leader yet and they were struggling to optimise their performance as a team.
Having uncomfortable conversations is a part of coming together in Collaborative Leadership. Photo by Vishwajeet Chavan
When one student voluntarily tried to take charge, the rest of them wouldn’t listen. I could also clearly see that this student was not feeling good about it. This led to an unspoken disharmony in the team.
When I shared this observation with the team, they denied the need for a leader. They said that they were happy with everyone taking turns as leaders. When I pointed out that this was stopping them from doing their best, they outright denied it.
Then I shared my observation about how the student who was trying to take charge was ignored by the others.
What are you gaining by your strategy? I asked them.
I had opened up a can of worms. One said that assigning a leader would mean that others would not take up responsibility. Another said that being a leader among peers would not work. Another said that usually being a leader means also getting disproportionate gains, more than other individuals in the team.
I remarked these notions were exactly what we were trying to unlearn through collaborative leadership. There can be leaders among peers. Being a leader does not mean he/she is the sole owner of responsibility. Being an active participant did not mean abdicating ownership or responsibility. And defining clear leaders for different responsibilities can bring more joy than ignoring the need for one.
Squirming from within, they rethought their ideas of leadership, sharing responsibility and taking ownership — things that were so far unsaid between all of them. At the end of the reflection, not only did they acknowledge that they needed a leader, they also acknowledged and thanked the student’s effort in being one.
In a modern working world, teams that work best are the ones that are willing to look at their dysfunctions. They acknowledge it and get better at it. This requires team members to be vulnerable, be humble — things that are not often in our comfort zone. In a work setting, it takes a long time to understand how to do this without getting our egos bruised.
The program design, however, forced these reflections out of them. Students could not move forward without accepting their mistakes. They needed to be vulnerable and look beyond their ego to open up to other team members. When others pointed out their weaknesses they needed the humility to accept it. It was only after these qualities emerged that they could break the walls around themselves and mould themselves as a team.
Participants learnt that focusing on collective success results in disproportionate individual success
Once we reached Balu ka Gera, the penultimate camp, I had my doubts whether the team could cross the pass the next day. I was not sure if the team was ready for the challenge. It was a gruelling 11 hours of trekking through snow and moraine, in the thin air of 14,000+ ft.
In our game design we usually put responsibility for such big decisions on the team themselves.
I got the team together and put forward the problem in as black and white a situation as possible. I told them that they had to decide if they wanted to cross the pass. But it had a criteria that had to be fulfilled. They had to either cross the pass together or quit. Even if they quit they had to return together.
In addition we put another constraint on them. We would not cross the pass unless everyone hit a certain milestone by 9 am — about 60% of the distance to the pass. We knew that if they could reach the milestone by 9 am, we would have the right pace to reach the pass. But reaching this milestone was not going to be easy. It was a steady climb through rocky terrain of the alpine zone.
We put the onus on the team. They were the decision-makers and drivers of the next day. The Indiahikes team would keep an eye on the proceedings but we would be bystanders.
(I’ll be honest here. Even though I had opened up the possibility of them crossing the pass, I was not very optimistic. Not only was their physical endurance a question, they had a substantial distance to cover, plus they were climbing and descending more than 2000 ft one way. To succeed, they needed to not just collaborate within their team of 7-10 members, but among all 34 members. I had my doubts.)
They immediately got down to it.
Each team individually discussed in detail what they would do. Their team leaders then collaborated on their strategies. One said that the fastest team should start and set the pace. Another said that they should send the slowest trekkers ahead and have them follow someone who can set a steady pace. They also planned who would do what from the moment they woke up.
Unfolding before my eyes was a team whose summit expedition had already begun an evening before they started. And they were all in it together.
Then I started to see collaborative leadership truly emerge in action.
My first surprise came the next day. The team woke up at 2.30 am without a wake up call by the Indiahikes team. This was a first.
Next, they got ready and were out of the camp by 4 am. It was pitch dark outside. The teams were out with their headlamps and torches.
Getting out of their tents was something they had taken hours to do on the first three days — in broad daylight. Yet, here they were out in the cold in the dead of the night, winding camps, packing their meals, rolling their sleeping bags and packing their backpacks.
They were in continuous collaboration with each other. They sent the slower members ahead to set a moderate pace. Strong team members took turns with slow team members and kept motivating them. They did not allow their morale to go down for a second. As we kept climbing, the sun came out. The heat started to get to them. But they kept going forward. They ensured that the first member of the team could see the last member. They stuck together.
It did not take until 9 am for them to reach the milestone. All 34 of them exceeded their own expectations and reached the milestone at 8.30 am. The team was jubilant.
The pass didn’t matter. The real victory was felt and celebrated here. To them, they had achieved something that was well beyond their means.
However, the Hampta Pass challenge had just started. The team had 9 hours of trekking ahead. 9 hours at around 14,000 feet, in steep and difficult terrain. They were now in an alpine zone, trudging on hard scree and moraine. Big boulder sections lay ahead.
Hampta Pass is not an easy trek. It has steep ascends and descends. Sticking together through these challenges needed the students to collaborate. Photo by Jothiranjan
These sections are unforgiving for people who do not have steady legs. Yet they kept their pace. The sun was harsh and unforgiving. Yet they stuck together — helping each other with ORS and water. The altitude pushed students to the brink. Many started showing symptoms of AMS. Still they stuck together and pushed each other to the pass.
Everyone reached the pass at a considerable time. The first and the last person were just half an hour apart - this was unthinkable on day 1.
They were worn out. Yet, they had come up just one way. They still had 3 more hours of gruelling steep descent. Steady footed mules slip and fall in this descent and here were students who were drained completely needing to keep their head and feet together.
But they didn’t lose focus. They continued to keep together, helping each other out until they all reached the campsite.
(One incident particularly touched me. I had to bring down a student who had low oxygen quickly down to Shea Goru ahead of all the other team members. He was one of the team members who wanted to cross the pass at any cost, even if it meant that his other team members would not be able to cross with him.
While I was bringing him down, what I saw him do, again and again, was check on his team members on the walkie, asking them how they were doing and if they needed any support from his end. It showed me how strongly the team had come to care for each other.)
In the end, the team reached Shea Goru by 11 hours well ahead of the 13 hours that I thought it would take us. The students were dead tired. They went into the tents and could not come out for dinner. But they had won and won big.
This was not any individual’s success. It was the collective team’s win.
In many ways, this entire trek felt like a mini ‘Chak De India.’ 34 individuals came on the trek. When they ended the trek, they were a single team who had learnt what it meant to work collaboratively together.
While the lessons may seem stereotyped in leadership and team building textbooks, the difference is that the students lived these lessons. They learnt every lesson the hard way, in an unfamiliar setting, where the impact of the learning was hard to ignore.
Now I go back to what I started in the beginning. Any modern workplace needs collaborative leadership to work effectively. The way our education system has been designed, we are not prepared for working collaboratively. We have been groomed to compete.
Modern workplaces need to teach their employees how to work collaboratively, almost from scratch. Which is why professional institutions like Goa Institute of Management are trying to work these into their course programs.
Coming on programs like this helps participants learn collaborative leadership skills. It prepares them for success.
The participants learn to put their team before their own self interest; they learn to take equal stake in the outcome of the program; they learn to have uncomfortable conversations to achieve better team functionality; and they learn that if they do this well, the collective success gives disproportionate individual success.
I want to share my personal learning as well. When I started working at Indiahikes, I was not a collaborative leader. It has been 6 years since I have started participating in conducting these collaborative leadership programs.
I realise now that every time I come back from such a program, I come back a different manager and leader. My thoughts on team dynamics, team ownership and team leadership evolves. While I learn from my own experience from my work, facilitating such programs gives me 10X more learning. The situations the participants go through mimic my real life work scenarios. Even for me the program makes the awareness and learning of collaborative skills a natural consequence of the design.
I am happy that I get to do this program every year. The program helps me add more value to my team and my organisation.
It makes me wish that every working professional would be a part of such programs.
If you'd like to introduce such a program at your institution, do get in touch with me on email@example.com. It is effective especially for leadership teams at all levels.