Collaborate Better Handbook

Collaborative Leadership

Leadership is earned

by Aarron Walter


Leadership can seem like an inscrutable quality, but most of us probably think we know it when we see it. Is it about wielding authority? Making big decisions? Managing large groups of people? It can include all of these activities, but as Eli and I have learned through our interviews with leaders at organizations large and small, genuine leadership is something much more.

Effective leaders bring teams together to establish shared values and vision that help people take their own path toward success. They tell vivid stories of the opportunities ahead that inspire others to join the mission. They create environments where relationships are built on trust and egos are quieted to let all talents shine. They operate from a service perspective, leading from the back where they can mind the blindspots that threaten progress. 

These are some of the qualities Eli and I have recognized in the extraordinary leaders we’ve interviewed on the Design Better Podcast. We’ll take a closer look at each in this chapter to help you and your teams make sustainable progress toward audacious goals.

Earning the opportunity to lead

Leadership is not a title. It’s not what happens after you get a promotion. It’s a way of behaving. Julie Zhuo, the best-selling author of The Making of a Manager and a Facebook veteran, shared a succinct way of thinking about leadership when we spoke with her:

There are plenty of managers who are not leaders, and plenty of leaders who are not managers. You needn’t wait to be promoted to a position of authority to begin your leadership journey. Adopting a leadership mindset is all it takes to get started.

The first step in learning to lead is acting like an owner. Business owners accept responsibility and do what’s required to push an organization forward—even when the work isn’t glamorous. They step in when and where help is needed most. It doesn’t matter if a given task isn’t within their job description. Leaders ask themselves: “Who will carry this forward if not me?”

When you take this approach, you’ll discover that your influence within an organization starts to rise. Seth Godin, best-selling author of some of the most influential books on marketing, shared with us a recipe for stepping into leadership and building influence: 

The most common mistake people working in a big company make is adopting a victim mindset. “I’m just doing my job. I’m just doing what they tell me to do.” Organizations are rarely going to give you authority, but they’re almost always going to give you responsibility if you’re willing to take it. The hack to do productive work in an organization is to give away credit, relentlessly give away credit, and take responsibility every chance you get, because what you will discover is people like getting credit and they like giving away responsibility. If you can start doing those two things in tandem, you will make a difference where you work. 

—Seth Godin

Seth’s advice—to be of service and give credit to others—not only provides a clear approach to stepping into a leadership role, but also helps us become humble and grounded leaders. Humility is the foundation of learning, and learning is the foundation of growth. If you want to accelerate your career, heed Seth’s words.

Service thinking is something we’ve heard about from other leaders, too. Jason Mayden, an accomplished leader in design with an impressive résumé who is the CEO of Trillicon Valley, told us how important it is to him to remain humble and act as a servant leader:

No matter what station of life I’m in, everyone is deserving of respect. Everyone is deserving of my time. Everyone is deserving of my attention. Everyone is deserving of my best self. I don’t care if you serve me something to eat or if you’re the CEO of a company, I’m going to treat you like you matter because you’re here. —Jason Mayden

Jason’s humility makes him approachable and inspires trust in his leadership. He leads from the back, making sure everyone is taken care of—an approach at odds with how leadership often gets framed:

People get confused with the image of George Washington on a Potomac as the epitome of leadership. That’s false. That’s not leadership. That’s discipline. People followed him because he was the leader in the military structure. 

If you look at nature, the leader of a pack of lions is in the back to protect the weak side of their tribe or their group of cubs. They’re the ones making sure they’re protected and blind spots are covered. That’s my form of servant leadership. I’m in the back, cheering everybody on, getting excited for everybody, keeping everybody motivated to keep moving forward. That’s how I lead. —Jason Mayden

The type of support and leadership Jason describes gets noticed and is appreciated by others. It invites people in, inspires trust, and makes space for everyone to be successful together. Collaboration comes easy in an environment where leaders serve. 

As you step into leadership in your career, you’ll discover that collaboration comes in many forms. The first and most pressing place to start is by developing collaborative relationships with your peers. 

Collaborating with peers

Julie Zhuo chronicled her unique leadership journey at Facebook in The Making of a Manager. Having joined the company as an intern in its early days, she had no grand plan for building a career there. Little did she know how quickly the company would grow, and in turn how much she would grow as a leader. 

After being  promoted to a management role and struggling to understand how to be effective as a leader, she discovered that “the graph of impact tends to correlate with how many people you need to work with effectively.” She continued: “Once I realized this, I started to see my interactions with other people differently. It was no longer about winning battles and proving that I was right, but about developing stronger collaborative relationships.”

In large organizations where thorny problems are tackled by experts from diverse disciplines, developing relationships with leadership peers is critical to being effective. Some of your colleagues will probably think differently than you and have different goals, which makes it hard to collaborate. 

Abigail Hart Gray, director of UX at Google, told us to search for common ground. Try, she said, to find the goals you have in common and let that be the foundation of a new partnership:

I think it’s really all about relationships and finding the overlap in what you’re trying to achieve and what your business partners are trying to achieve. When you find that common ground of what you all want, then you can design toward that. I like to find out what metrics other people care about. Then you can march toward a shared goal and start building a relationship. —Abigail Hart Gray

Finding shared goals gives you a foundation for a professional relationship. Getting to know your leadership peers on a personal level will help you further build trust. Alex Schleifer, former chief digital officer at Airbnb, told us he regularly has breakfast with the heads of Product and Engineering not to coordinate on work but to forge personal connections. Establishing empathy and trust in a leadership team sets all teams and the organization up for success.

Personal connection doesn’t always come easy, though. In circumstances like these, Seth Godin told us, we simply need to acknowledge and accept our differences. A dash of empathy doesn’t hurt, either:

Practical empathy says these other people don’t know what you know, they don’t believe what you believe. They might not even want what you want. And the recipe to be a frustrated designer is to hate that, is to rail against the fact that they just don’t get it. But the alternative, if you seek to make change happen, which is all creativity is, is to acknowledge it and then add “and that’s okay.” Because if you can’t begin with “and that’s okay,” then you’re insisting people come to you. But the only way to make design work is to come to them on their terms, based on who they are, what they want, what they believe. Realizing that everyone’s got a noise in their head, just like you have a noise in your head, helps us get to the next level. —Seth Godin

Building these partnerships—in some cases friendships—at work leads to many new opportunities. Collaboration comes easier and you begin to see the compounding effects of people with complementary skills working at your side.  

Partners push back on and expand your ideas to find ways to make them better. They can be amplifiers of your talents. When we spoke with John Cleese, cocreator of the Monty Python comedy troupe, he described the dynamic he had with his fellow actors and the confidence he gained from having  strong partners: 

It’s well known that the Monty Python team didn’t always get along, but years of collaboration built trust and creative tension that generated work far greater than any one individual could have produced.

The legendary work of Monty Python was guided by a reverence for the creative process and each player’s role in it. John told us he was careful not to be overly critical, since that can stifle collaboration:

Never criticize someone in the creative process. Instead ask, “What do you mean by that?” —John Cleese

Asking for clarification tells partners you’re not on the same page, but offers no judgment. It protects the flow of the work and promotes collaborative dialogue. It keeps egos in check.

Ego can pose a challenge to collaboration. Years spent in a given position inevitably lead to attachment to process and roles. And that can be dangerous: it can hold you back and keep your team locked in a pattern that limits its success. 

Ego snuck up on Julie Zhuo at Facebook. For years she had led a weekly all-hands meeting that was central to the design team’s work. “I was really proud of that meeting. It brought our community together,” she told us. 

When it was time for Julie to step away for maternity leave, she passed the meeting to a colleague to manage in her absence. After Julie returned to work, she felt a mixture of sadness and joy at discovering that the meeting had a new life. She had to admit that it was more effective and engaging in a new format under a new leader. 

Reflection helped Julie see that handing over this responsibility to someone else wasn’t just a growth opportunity for them, but also for her. She now had more time to devote to other important work. In hindsight, she realized she should have made the transition earlier. 

As you continue to grow as a leader, you will inevitably collaborate with more people and will influence your organization more broadly. Sounds intimidating, right? It doesn’t have to be, though, as we’ll soon see.

Collaborating with large groups

Broad communication in a company can be a challenge. Differing perspectives, specialized language, and physical distance all put up barriers between teams that hinder collaboration. The complexity of communication grows exponentially as more people join the organization and new teams form (Fig 2.1). 

Humans have struggled with the problem of scale for millennia as we’ve built cities, governments, religions, complex architecture, and anything that requires cooperation among large groups of people. And we’ve developed effective ways to address scale—the most potent of which is storytelling.

Storytelling and mission statements

Though most people have trouble recalling large amounts of data, we’re all quite good at remembering stories. We can pick out the key moments, extract the lessons, and retell stories to others with reasonable accuracy, which allows ideas to spread to and among large groups of people. 

The role of a leadership team in a large company is primarily to tell the stories that unite people and motivate them to dream big.  Chris Kemp, CEO and founder of the space company Astra, uses storytelling to drive investment in his company, attract and retain talent, and help his teams accomplish audacious goals:

If there’s something important you’re trying to do, the story behind it and getting people excited about it and why you’re doing it and why it’s important allows you to connect with people and bring them into your orbit. The more people you can bring into your orbit, the more you can accomplish. —Chris Kemp

When we spoke with Brian Chesky, cofounder and CEO of Airbnb, he too shared an example of how storytelling helped the company convey its mission and attract customers who were aligned with that mission. 

Airbnb’s guiding mission is to create a world where anyone can belong anywhere. Chesky unexpectedly found his company’s mission at odds with US immigration policy in 2017, when an executive order banned travel into the US from many Muslim countries. Outrage and allegations of discrimination gripped the country, prompting discussions inside Airbnb about how to respond, if at all. 

Just days before Super Bowl LI, Airbnb bought a thirty-second ad spot and quickly produced a video portraying tightly cropped portraits of people from all walks of life overlaid with bold sans serif text asserting: “We believe no matter who you are or where you are from, who you love or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept.” The ad didn’t directly mention the executive order—it didn’t have to. It made a simple yet powerful case for welcoming others into our world and expressed Airbnb’s values.

Supporters and detractors responded vociferously. Despite the risks of running the ad, Chesky saw it as positive for the business and called it a “defining action.”

We ended up buying this ad at the last second. It was one of the scarier things we ever did because we might be inflaming people and who knows what’s going to happen. Anyway, something unexpected happened. A whole bunch of people who believed in it spoke out and supported it. And a whole bunch of people who didn’t believe in it spoke out against it. And I got a lot of emails and tweets from people saying I’m never using the service again.

I thought to myself, well, that may have saved us all some trouble because now you know what we stand for and you know what we’re about. And if you’re not committed to this idea, then there may have been a problem. Our business has always been a community. —Brian Chesky

The clarity and visibility of Airbnb’s mission within the company guided their decision-making and creative process. It was the foundation of their story.

The larger an organization gets, the more critical storytelling and mission are to unifying everyone’s efforts. 

Principles to guide independent work

Stories and mission statements are instruments for unifying large groups of people and telling us why we’re working together. Inevitably, though, teams will need more specific guidance on how to work and what work aligns best with the organization’s objectives. 

Eileen Fisher, founder of the popular clothing company that bears her name, told us she has been spending a lot of time defining the principles that guide her teams and maintain the integrity of their work, in anticipation of a time when she will take a less active role in the company. 

Strong design principles guide her fashion line. Each piece is modular, versatile, comfortable, well adapted to customers’ lifestyles, and balanced in terms of form and function. When the company was small, these principles were largely unspoken and intuitive, but now that the company is much larger, Eileen has realized that documenting the brand’s principles is essential to preserving the integrity of what she has built. She calls these principles of the fashion line the “blueprint” for the company’s future:

What I’m working on actually right now is to define the blueprint of what this system is because, well, I’m seventy-one years old and I’ve been doing this a long time. I picture that it’s going to go on without me. And there have been phases where I’ve been less close to the design where I’ve been a little unhappy, it got a little out of the pattern of what I think the design concept is. And so I’ve been trying to land that blueprint and define how to design within this concept so that new designers coming in can follow. —Eileen Fisher

In addition to the design principles Eileen is defining, her team also communicates the company’s values around sustainability and manufacturing practices to customers on its website. Taken together, these principles provide the company with the infrastructure for independent work that remains true to the vision Eileen originally defined.

Fewer how conversations, more why conversations 

Because they have experience and expertise to share that will help their teams be successful, leaders often find themselves playing the role of problem-solver. But, as best-selling author Dan Pink told us, too often the approach leaders take to problem-solving is misguided:   

Try it out for one week if you’re a leader, have two fewer conversations about how and two more about why. As simple-minded as that sounds, that’s actually really effective. I think what leaders will find—particularly leaders in technical fields—is that they have a huge number of how conversations. If we go back to the science, we know that the purpose, whether it’s capital P or small p, is a pretty important motivator. —Dan Pink

Telling people how to solve a problem takes away their agency to find a novel solution and makes them reliant on your expertise. It can also demotivate and stifle their ideas, ultimately weakening the creativity of your organization as a whole. Reminding people why solving a problem is important and offering context about goals, mission, or audience can provide clarity while trusting them to find an effective solution.

Novice leaders explain how to solve a problem. Experienced leaders explain why

Leading productive group conversations

Getting a large group of people to collaborate creatively is tough. Loud voices monopolize the conversation and drown out other contributions. Worse still, fear of looking stupid paralyzes the whole group. How do you herd the cats toward a productive outcome?

Years in the Monty Python comedy troupe have given John Cleese strong feelings on this subject:

If you have a big group, the only way it can work is to have someone in charge who understands the process. Otherwise you get big clashes of personality. The person in charge has to be open to learning, not have some idea in the back of their mind that they’re trying to get everyone to agree to—creative people spot that in a moment. This person has to quiet down the dominant people who keep on talking … and encourage the shy people to speak up and keep that balance going.” —John Cleese

The need to subdue dominant voices and amplify quiet ones is a recurring theme we heard throughout our interviews. Greg Hoffman, vice president of global brand innovation at Nike, echoed John’s advice, emphasizing the importance of remaining as impartial as possible when drawing out different voices. 

But if acting as an impartial guide to the creative process is important, MIT astrophysicist and planetary scientist Sara Seager suggested that playing the role of provocateur is sometimes necessary to spark meaningful discussion:

Without some sort of catalyst, conversation can stay locked in stasis as fear of judgment paralyzes some contributors, while others struggle to arrive at an opinion. Productive collaboration sometimes calls for a provocative jump start.

The multiplying effect of collaborative leadership

Something magical happens when you start to master these principles of collaborative leadership: your team’s capabilities and achievements are multiplied. The strong relationships you’ll build, your ability to unify people and their work around a mission and a story, and your facilitation of productive conversations will create an environment where independent thinking and creative collaboration thrive. 

It took Julie Zhuo a few years to figure this out during her tenure at Facebook, but once she did she found clarity about how to lead effectively:

My success as a manager is about the multiplicative effect I can have on people. If I can help you do a task more efficiently or better, then the team is going to be better off. I also need to foster the kind of environment where relationships can be fruitful and productive and collaborative. I had to think intentionally about the culture I wanted to build. —Julie Zhuo

The key word here is intention. Intention—making a conscious effort to understand our colleagues and customers—is how we can arrive at a productive, collaborative culture. We’ll take a closer look at how to do that in the next chapter.


About the Authors

Eli Woolery
Senior Director of Design Education / InVision

Eli Woolery is the Senior Director of Design Education at InVision, and co-host of the Design Better Podcast. His design career spans both physical and digital products, and he has worked with companies ranging from startups (his own and others) to Fortune 500 companies.

In addition to his background in product and industrial design, he has been a professional photographer and filmmaker. He teaches the senior capstone class Implementation to undergraduate Product Designers at Stanford University. You can find Eli on Twitter and Medium.

Aarron Walter
Author and co-host of the Design Better Podcast

Aarron Walter is the co-host of the Design Better Podcast, and author of Designing for Emotion. He was the Director of Product on the COVID Response team at Resolve to Save Lives, and prior to that, the VP of Design Education at InVision. He founded the UX practice at Mailchimp where he helped grow the product from a few thousand users to more than 10 million. He’s the author of a number of books, the latest of which is a second edition of Designing for Emotion. Aarron’s design guidance has helped the White House, the US Department of State, and dozens of major corporations, startups, and venture capital firms.

You can find Aarron on Twitter and LinkedIn.