Collaboration Ups and Downs
Smart Collaboration

Collaboration Ups and Downs

Heidi K. Gardner brings fierce objectivity to her explanation of the good and the bad of collaboration.

Heavy credentials

Heavy-hitting consultant, Harvard Business School professor and Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession lecturer Heidi K. Gardner presents her impressive credentials on the first page. She wants the reader to understand the multiple perspectives she brings to the issue of collaboration – that of a practicing, peripatetic McKinsey consultant working with clients and colleagues in London, Johannesburg and New York. Plus, she’s a professional who’s gaining a PhD in the study of collaboration and a business professor accustomed to explaining this complex field to students.

Collaboration is a driver of both financial and people-related benefits for firms.Heidi K. Gardner

Her credentials match her writing style: no-nonsense, straightforward, intelligent and knowledgeable. Gardner writes like an expert lecturer, building her argument sentence by sentence in each paragraph and summing up what she just said. This makes her ideas easy to understand and retain. It’s not quite clear whether she intends this book as an ancillary to her lectures, a text for business students, a guide to consulting or a personal brand builder, but whatever her ambitions are, they don’t lessen her credibility or the usefulness of her text.

Gardner breaks collaboration down into its various elements and describes every possible type. She keeps her eye on two main goals: Bring profit to those who are hired to collaborate and consult – and help those who hire them gain profit and improved business function as a result of that collaboration.


Gardner argues convincingly that most firms must collaborate – that is, bring in knowledgeable outsiders – because most businesses today face issues that are too complex and multilayered for any one expert to handle alone, no matter how rich that person’s expertise. She describes “smart collaboration” as a “means to an end,” always. Because collaboration adds expense to reaching any goal, collaborators must develop a mutual understanding of what they’re trying to achieve.

With the constant change in knowledge, professionals in every field are increasingly turning to specialization. Simply put, nobody can know everything across fields, and few can know everything in even one field. Consultants develop “true expertise” in a narrow area to ensure their value. Once, consultants gained an edge over their clients by filling an “expertise gap,” like your plumber knowing how your dishwasher works. Today, Gardner explains as an insider, this gap plays an increasingly reduced function. Clients know a lot or can hire someone else who does. They’re better equipped to gauge the usefulness and expertise of a consultant, and more likely to insist on an equal working relationship – a collaboration.

Gardner cites a trend she saw when she was a consultant with McKinsey: People join the firm as “generalists,” but tend to specialize as their careers mature. She notes that when consultancies such as McKinsey, Accenture, Deloitte and KPMG work in Nigeria, they, hire “immigration, visa services and airport protocol” specialists, who handle VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) issues as well as working with clients, government regulatory agencies, staff members, shareholder and nearby communities. 


Gardner addresses the dynamics of “seasoned collaborators,” or rainmakers – experienced consultancy leaders who bring in clients, business and money. She moves between stating the obvious and sharing insider tips, such as how remaining alert to the obvious issues that can arise in any interaction can inoculate your team from those problems. 

Seasoned collaborators know the value of having an effective team at work in stressful situations. Gardner finds that senior leaders welcome the stress, culture clashes and problematic adventure that come up during tough jobs – and they know that the more money a job earns or the more crucial the project, the greater the stress. To earn the money and status that rigorous assignments bring, top consultants must continually demonstrate their abilities in difficult spheres. As senior partners age and get rich, they turn from being ambitious to seeking “meaning” in tasks that fit their philosophies and higher aspirations, and that provide nonmonetary as well as monetary benefits.

From a professional service firm’s perspective, the more partners who serve a given client, the more likely the client is to become ‘institutionalized’ – owned, as it were, by the firm, rather than controlled by one partner – thus reducing the risk that a department professional will make off with that client.Heidi K. Gardner

Seasoned collaborators want complex work, and, as Gardner explains, that they’ve earned the right to challenging jobs. She notes perceptively that these top consultants also like the power that accrues with seniority and success. Smart senior leaders also like to work with younger, cutting-edge colleagues. Consider Jack Welch, GE’s legendary CEO, who chose a 25-year-old computer expert as his “technology mentor.” Welch felt that no one in his generation could show him what the future held. Senior leaders also think of their “legacies.” When an assignment comes along that might add luster to an already shining career, they take it.

Local partners

If you’re on a consulting team that is parachuting into a local situation, Gardner cautions, be aware that local partners want to retain control of their clients. They’ll try to stay autonomous. Local partners will be concerned that your team might take away their steady work, leaving them searching for lots of smaller clients to make up their revenue. Even in the face of this resistance, she says, don’t flag on quality. Bring in your best, most productive team members.

Team building and team dynamics

Gardner speaks from experience when she explains that building the right team may mean convincing capable consultancy colleagues to stop working on “their own” clients when a higher-profile, higher-paying, higher-stakes assignment needs their finesse and awareness. If you need people on your team who are already overwhelmed with their current load, she advises, “backstop” them with capable support. Share your relatively inexperienced but promising young team members with them. Her implication is a warning against penny-pinching. Be “fair and generous on fees,” she says, especially for those who set aside their clients to help the team. Put the people who lend a hand at that level in line for bonuses or access to better accounts.

When clients face a novel issue, they often tackle it with a team. Many…believe that teams are more innovative than individuals. Not surprisingly, when the task demands it, they expect their advisors to do the same, and collaborate for the sake of generating nonstandard answers.Heidi K. Gardner

As you recruit, ask current team players to recommend prospective hires to you. To entice new team members, let them know you run an efficient team, share credit and don’t micromanage. Treat your team members with respect. Don’t shift their announced goals or create false deadlines. If you develop a reputation as a manipulative leader, Gardner warns firmly, you won’t be able to enlist loyal followers. She doesn’t skimp on building social capital, advising consultants to socialize with team members outside the office.

While some of her leadership advice would apply in any setting, it’s all sound and solid, if sometimes familiar. For instance, she warns, never hide bad news. Tell your team what’s going on. Give positive feedback continually, but when someone does a substandard job, say so as diplomatically as possible. Hold regular team and individual meetings. Post job opportunities on your intranet. Represent your firm’s best values. Brainstorm regularly. Show that you’ll swap favors and help with co-workers’ clients. Give credit where it’s due. Share “recognition.” Have potential help ready when your team members tell you their work is overwhelming. Start every job with a possible list of backup staff. Never hog the spotlight or claim someone else’s idea as your own. If you do, no one will collaborate with you.

High-functioning teams

You can help your staff members become superior collaborators by giving them additional responsibilities and proving you trust their judgment, Gardner explains. To help teams function at their best, bring together a group that knows they’re an exclusive squad. Make it clear that they’ll work only with each other and toward only one “explicit, shared purpose.” To forestall possible turf wars and misunderstandings, delineate who is in charge of what and who is subordinate to whom. Explain how you expect them to behave with clients, each other and the public. Teach them to coach one another – another step in fulfilling Gardner’s ultimate goal: creating an environment for openness, teamwork and collaboration.

While clearly proud of her McKinsey experience, Gardner does not hesitate to point out the flaws in consultant-based collaboration. This underscores her fierce objectivity and determination to explain the good and the bad of collaboration, backed up with her own studies and interviews as well as the telling data she uncovered with her research. This seminal text will serve business students and professors, entrepreneurs, CEOs and consultants. It also will be useful to anyone in any collaborative field or anyone thinking of hiring a consultant or being one. Gardner addresses various business settings with insights that apply to anyone who works with other people or organizations.

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