Will collaborative leadership spell the end for the traditional C-suite?

Will collaborative leadership spell the end for the traditional C-suite?

The structure and set-up of the C-suite has essentially remained the same for decades. And while the top tier can vary in its effectiveness due to all sorts of factors – including personalities, group dynamics and capabilities – it has largely been seen as a fit for how the majority of organisations work.

In that time, we’ve seen command-and-control and hierarchical leadership dominate as well as the so-called “heroic leader” come to the fore.

Times have changed though and the shift towards a more collaborative style of organisational leadership has gathered pace in recent years. The complexity that exists in the world of business today, alongside the sheer pace of change and technological advancement means that leaders know they can no longer go it alone.

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No single individual has all the answers to advance their strategies and deliver growth. The best leaders recognise the need to consult and work with others at all levels, listening and facilitating discussions to create a roadmap of action to deliver results.

Developing a collaborative style of leadership has been a key strand of leadership development programmes delivered by Rialto Consultancy in recent years and it will continue to be a priority.

And we are always keen to point out that the collaboration must work at all levels with those above, below and sideways as well as cross-functionally through a whole systems approach. Future collaborative leaders see their role as catalysing, enabling and supporting widespread action – rather than being in the spotlight themselves.

Our approach aligns with thinking and research in the wider world of business, which highlights how hierarchies are being displaced by collaborative, team-centric approaches, which pays off in terms of performance and growth.

According to a study conducted by professional services firm Deloitte, more than half of organisations (53 per cent) see a significant improvement in performance after the transition to a team/network-based organisation. In our experience, the team and collaborative mindset still needs to permeate to the C-suite and senior leadership teams though and this represents a major challenge going forward for many leaders.

First off, developing a collaborative mindset will be expected by the Millennial generation many of whom are already in leadership positions. Research published by American Express found that a focus on teamwork and democratic leadership styles by Millennials suggests the C-suite of the future will promote a flatter structure in the organisations they lead.

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Moreover, the report, Redefining the C-Suite: Business the Millennial Way, goes as far as saying that in less than 10 years the CEO role will no longer be relevant in its current format. Unsurprisingly, it quickly dismisses the 20th century command-and-control leaders/hero-CEO as likely to be counter-productive or unsuitable in the current business climate.

It isn’t only about collaboration internally but collaborative styles and systems leadership thinking that are also required to interact with and manage external stakeholders and companies. The digital age has seen the emergence of the ecosystem, where organisations work with partners and sometimes competitors to achieve an objective.

For example, complex technologies such as artificial intelligence require considerable discussion in terms of how they will be implemented, and this relies on industry- and sector-wide collaboration.

Many leaders have grown up with a silo-based mindset when it comes to dealing with challenges that can be hard to break free from. Rialto has found that functional boundaries often get in the way of building more collaborative organisations.

This is backed by 2019 research from Deloitte that revealed only 17 per cent of C-suite executives “regularly collaborate on long-term interdependent work”, down from 34 per cent in 2018 while 44 per cent of respondents reported their C-suite executives either operate totally independently or only occasionally partner on ad hoc initiatives. Rialto research has found that where leaders do collaborate, more than three-quarters of them only seek consensus with peers or senior stakeholders rather than collaborating more widely.

No leader or organisation can afford to be an island in the current business climate, and it is expected that Millennial leaders of the future will have to turn to all levels of their organisation for ideas and support. Rialto is already working with companies and individual leaders to help them develop the skills, capabilities and thinking to work and lead more democratically and collaboratively.

Essentially, it’s about taking leaders from the ‘he’ or ‘she’ to the ‘we’ and, in our view, it is becoming a business imperative.

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