November 22, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Many forward-thinking employers emphasize collaboration. Siloed organizations—those with teams, departments, or groups that do not want to share information or knowledge with other individuals in the organization—are increasingly seen as outmoded and inefficient. Collaboration is not just a feel-good philosophy—bottom lines and output benefit from collaborative environments.

At its root, collaboration is a commonsense tactic that simply means working together to produce, create, or execute something. Forbes, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and other business-savvy publications sing the praises of collaboration, and research indicates that women in particular excel in this area.

“I believe that collaboration is key to a successful business or operation,” says Susan Henricks, president and CEO at ICAN, a regional leader development focused nonprofit. “Women, the research shows, are generally better collaborators and more skilled at collaboration than men.”

ICAN offers programs, classes, and events that provide experiential learning. As a happy side effect, participating men and women develop stronger professional networks, which Henricks says often helps them achieve important real-world collaborative efforts.

“Collaboration is a skill we identified many years ago as a necessary, critical characteristic of successful leaders,” says Henricks. “All our programs, many of our speaker events, and certainly the women’s leadership conference focus on what it takes to collaborate and how to get better at collaborating, whether it’s with women, men, or a [coed] group.”

Jami Anders-Kemp, director at Step-Up Omaha!, a youth employment initiative of The Empowerment Network (TEN), also uses the power of collaboration at her organization, where she unites stakeholders from throughout the community. Though her role has expanded and evolved, she was initially hired to direct Omaha 360, a TEN program, where she aimed to build relationships and collaborations to reduce gun and gang violence in Omaha.

Jami Anders-Kemp

“My job was strategizing solutions at a high level and determining who needed to be at the table to address the issue, because we realized we needed to take a holistic approach,” says Anders-Kemp. “We also agreed that we can’t arrest our way out of this situation; a true solution involves many different strategies.”

For Omaha 360, Anders-Kemp says those strategies include enforcement, positive alternatives, re-entry and recovery, and court services, among others. She adds that in all of TEN’s efforts they also look at individuals’ needs at “a basic human level”— such as if the lights are on at home and if they have a job. When looking at a problem from so many angles, collaboration becomes essential to the process and Anders-Kemp brings together representatives from community organizations, OPD, OPS, the mayor’s office, the faith-based community, local business leaders, and others to facilitate action and change.

“With that range of strategies in place, you can see how important it is to ensure you have the right stakeholders at the table,” says Anders-Kemp, who employs similarly collaboration-based strategies when managing STEP-UP Omaha! and taking a major role in other TEN initiatives like Women for Peace, Omaha African-American Male Achievement Council, and Cradle to Career.

“It’s not necessarily that men don’t have this strength, but I think women have that desire to build relationships. And we’re often in environments where we’ve had to find ways to collaborate, whether it’s raising a family or doing business,” says Anders-Kemp. “That relationship piece is key for collaboration. All the strong women I know are good at coming together with that ‘it takes a village’ mentality.”

Certainly, collaboration can go wrong, but more often it goes right—especially for women. According to research from the Women’s Collaboration Project, there are at least five favorable or neutral experiences for every one negative collaborative experience, and 77 percent of respondents said they were “very likely” to employ collaboration again within the next 12 months.

So, what makes someone a good collaborator?

“The No. 1 key strength of an effective collaborator is that you’re not just out for yourself; you desire a good group outcome,” says Henricks. “No. 2 is having empathy, understanding, and willingness to consider other perspectives. Many leaders just don’t want to listen to others, and I really believe that if you’re not willing to listen then you can’t be a collaborator. Third, you must recognize situations where collaboration is needed, and I think women often recognize that faster than some men…the research in this area shows that. While there are certain keys to being collaborative, I also believe an individual can learn to be collaborative even if they aren’t organically collaborative.”

Henricks also stresses “whole-brain thinking,” or holistic team-building, an important focus at ICAN.

“You don’t want all creatives, all numbers people, or all strategic people,” Henricks says. “You need to take all of those different capabilities and include people who represent each set of knowledge, then you’ve got a whole-brain-thinking team. It’s a great way to set up a collaborative situation.”

Anders-Kemp agrees that good collaboration requires a holistic approach.

“There’s no one program or model that fits every need, so it’s crucial to bring the right people together and look at things from all different aspects to accelerate change or success,” she says.

“Everyone’s contributing a little bit, but collectively it makes a huge effect. It’s important to be honest about not being an expert in every area and being able to ask, ‘Who needs to be at this table?’ Particularly when we’re talking about people’s lives, young people, and violence prevention, it’s very important. We have to hear from everyone, put personal feelings aside, and bring everyone in. No one person has all the answers, but together we can always find the answers faster.”

Visit icanglobal.net and empoweromaha.com for more information.

This article appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of B2B.

Susan Hendricks