The collaborative sweet spot
By Nicholas McKie

There is a meeting that sticks in my mind from my time leading an international school in the US. There was general frustration from staff that, in an effort to demonstrate collegiality and trust, the leadership team had established teacher committees for committee’s sake and nothing of substance was actually getting done. In essence, staff wanted the leadership team to be more decisive, make decisions and set direction for the future. Looking back, they were right.


It seems, now more than ever, that employee ownership and servant leadership is being posited as the optimal way to run an organisation. Karen Legge¹ describes it as ‘developmental humanism’; treating the employee as a valued asset, proactive rather than passive, engaged not distant, worthy of trust and commitment. However, Jacky Lumby² argues that if collegiality and ownership were the only way, it would condemn many educational organisations to paralysis.


Through the leadership coaching and development work I undertake, I often support clients through the process of collaboration, exploring when to open up discussion and when to make decisions to move things forward. Hitting the collaborative ‘sweet spot’, so to speak, could then be seen to be a key determinant of leadership effectiveness.


Categories of collaboration

I would like to offer Carol Cardno’s categories of collaboration model as a strategic tool when leading a school. Cardno outlines five progressive stages:


1. Information: letting people know

2. Consultation: seeking response

3. Discussion: facilitating debate

4. Involvement: inviting people

5. Participation: taking a full part


This model can provide a steer when planning collaboration. When, for example, is it time for disseminating information and simply letting people know of developments as opposed to opening discussion and facilitating a debate? When is it best to invite people to contribute to the process of planning, instead of taking a full part in strategic formulation?


Drawing on my own coaching experience, I would say it is common for leaders to fall into two camps. The first camp tends to shy away from actively seeking collaboration. This could be for fear of looking vulnerable, perhaps opening up the possibility that they are not in control or, indeed, are not experts in every situation. These leaders generally work in the initial stages of Cardno’s model (information and consultation), letting people know and seeking response without inviting further involvement.


The second camp is at the other end of the spectrum, asking for too much involvement in issues that may not necessitate full participation. This may be due to lack of confidence, an inability to make effective decisions, or even not wanting to become unpopular. These leaders tend to operate in the latter stages of Cardno’s model (involvement and participation) without accessing and utilising earlier stages fully.


Using Cardno’s model to plot activities and situations most aligned to the progressive stages can help give guidance and ignite reflection when planning collaboration across a team or organisation. Getting people involved, taking ownership and feeling connected to the vision of an organisation can help drive productivity and lay the foundations for success. Being strategic about when and how to collaborate can go a long way towards supporting this process.



¹ Legge, K., (2005) in ‘Human Resource Management’, in Whitehead, S. (2012) Keele tutor notes, Keele University, UK.

² Lumby, J., (1998) Understanding Strategic Change, in Middlewood, D., and Lumby, J. (2004) Strategic Management in Schools and Colleges, Paul Chapman Publishing, Sage Publications, London.

Nicholas McKie is a Certified Professional Coach and Master Leadership Practitioner through the Institute of Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC), and Director of Persyou. A former International School Principal and UK school inspector, Nicholas has led schools in Japan, Egypt, China, the US and the UK. Email or connect on LinkedIn

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