Ben FitchettLast year, Ben Fitchett completed a major piece of research that looked at collaborative leadership in the New Zealand state sector, for his MBA through Henley Business School, University of Reading. Ben previously worked at MBIE and now works as a Commercial Manager at Spark. He spoke to LDC about his research.

“I was seconded to LDC from MBIE’s Commercial Pool at the beginning of 2014 to assist with the procurement of a new provider panel, and with LDC’s support, my research topic was born. Building collaborative leadership capability across the public sector is a big focus for LDC,” explained Ben. The research topic links to the Leadership Success Profile capability area: Enhancing system performance ? working collectively across boundaries to deliver sustainable and long-term improvements to system and customer outcomes.

Ben drew his subjects from LDC’s alumni and interviewed tier 2 and 3 public sector leaders with experience leading major initiatives to gain their reflections on how state sector agencies collaborate. 

Senior leaders are big supporters of collaboration

“I had an overwhelming response from leaders keen to take part and interviewed 17 senior leaders. All were supporters of collaboration and the interviews validated the current thinking. To an extent, in the New Zealand context some aspects were a bigger deal than others; perhaps because our public sector is relatively small and centrally controlled – agencies have more linkages and interaction with one another than in other countries. Collaboration in New Zealand is quite different from collaboration overseas in that, the stakes are higher if collaboration fails. Reputations and relationships are more at risk; and these things seem to matter more in the New Zealand context,” said Ben.

Collaboration is necessary but difficult

The key findings:

  • All interviewees agreed that collaboration was important, acknowledging that agencies can’t deliver on Better Public Services without cross-agency collaboration. Where resources are scarce, agencies need to collaborate more closely to achieve positive results.
  • It is difficult to collaborate successfully. There’s a high level of trust required especially when the people you are collaborating with are from different agencies and reporting hierarchies.
  • Agencies generally reserve collaboration for special projects rather than adopting it a business as usual approach. The State Sector has some way to go before everyone will be working seamlessly together.

Of the 17 leaders interviewed, nine were from large agencies and eight from small agencies. “The leaders from smaller agencies were generally more receptive to collaboration, perhaps because they saw cross-agency working as necessary to achieve results. Larger agencies have greater resources to bring to collaboration, however that also allows them to go it alone without collaborative partners,” said Ben.

Key enablers of collaboration

“Many leaders told me that because they already have a specific role and focus, they need an incentive to collaborate with other agencies – such as the collaboration being good for them both personally and professionally. They wanted assurance that the collaboration was likely to succeed and that the outcome justified the effort.

“The leaders said that a shared mission and goal between participating agencies were essential, and the desired collaboration outcome had to be beneficial to all the agencies involved.

“Relationships of trust and respect also featured. You absolutely need trust amongst the collaborators so that it’s worth ‘sticking your neck out’. When times are tough, high levels of trust and respect are needed,” said Ben.

Key barriers to collaboration

“I found that siloed behaviours were a key barrier to collaboration, where some agencies avoid having to collaborate on a project where it isn’t deemed an immediate priority by their organisation. As well, power imbalances between agencies of differing size and resources can inhibit collaboration. Some of the leaders reported there was a lack of ability to collaborate, with some people lacking collaborative skills or just not being ‘wired’ for it. They felt that prior experience of working with other agencies was particularly useful for more complex collaboration.”

The role of leadership

“My research showed that leadership is the single most important factor for successful collaboration. Effective leadership provides the enablers and reduces the barriers to collaboration. Leaders need to support their people to work across agencies, and they need to put their best people on the job. Collaborative leadership is about knitting together the disparate parts.”

Leadership styles

A collaborative leader displays certain personal attributes. They:

  • have humility and self-awareness (A collaborative leader needs to be aware of their own ego and don’t compete to be the strongest personality in the room.)
  • show empathy towards others and other agencies (A collaborative leader needs to form good relationships.)
  • embrace system thinking and looking beyond their agency’s boundaries
  • are excellent listeners and communicators
  • have a collaborative mind-set and vision – they have to want to do it
  • have a passion for outcomes (If a leader doesn’t care if an initiative succeeds or fails then no one else is going to.)

Find out more in Ben’s research paper, Breaking the silos: Assessing the importance of leadership in facilitating cross-agency collaboration in the New Zealand state sector (pdf).