Blog for the DOD Family Readiness System.

Recently I delivered a webinar for the Military Families Learning Network ( which helps organizations that provide services to military families to share ideas, information, and resources in order to better serve their clients. The conference theme was Relationships for Readiness. My topic was Collaborating Across Organizational Boundaries.

We used some polls in the webinar. One of them asked participants to assess themselves on the five characteristics of effective collaborative leaders: Which of these characteristics are strengths?

Here are the results (participants could select more than one):

Listen carefully to understand others’ perspectives: 66%
Thinks systemically: connect the initiative to a larger purpose: 55%
Have great determination, resolve: keep ego in check: 50%
Look for win-win possibilities: 37%
Use more “pull” than “push”: 24%

As you can see, participants rated themselves lowest on seeking win-win possibilities and using “pull” more than “push.” Push is using the formal authority of our position. Pull involves tapping something internal in others – a value, a goal, a source of motivation. And win-win possibilities – solutions that benefit both (or all) parties – are possible when people don’t assume that life is a “zero-sum game;” that your gain must be at my loss.

These poll results are consistent with my experience in working with government and nonprofit officials for over 35 years. There are good reasons why these two skills are difficult for most. One of the biggest challenges to win-win thinking is that people must first believe that collaboration can be in everyone’s interest. But we Americans tend to be very competitive people; according to some studies we’re the 5th most litigious country in the world, and most people see competition as a win-lose game.

And why is it that most of us have a hard time with “pull?” Several reasons. We’re more familiar with push. Push is quicker (though not usually as effective). Pull is more indirect, and it requires knowing what motivates others; it can require a lot of trial and error.

Given these “speed bumps,” how can we improve our use of these two key collaborative leadership skills? It may be easier than you think. After all, both pull and win-win have something in common: they both require knowing the other person or group’s values, motivations, and interests. And here’s the good news: as our poll shows, most of us think we’re good at understanding other people’s perspectives. In fact, it was the most frequently-cited strength among our webinar participants. So we can use a proven strategy for making a change: use a strength to address a weakness.

Here are some examples of using a strength – understanding others’ perspectives – to employ pull and win-win solutions:

  • Ask certain questions that give you a clue as to your colleagues’ values, goals and sources of motivation. Questions like, which work activities do you find most meaningful? Which give you energy? I sometimes ask my clients, “When are you at your best at work?”
  • When Steve Jobs was looking for an experienced executive to become Apple’s CEO in 1983, he started courting John Sculley from Pepsi. Sculley kept saying he was happy where he was. Nothing Jobs said could change his mind. Finally Jobs made a different pitch; he asked Sculley, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugar water to teens, or do you want to come to Apple and help us change the world?” That hooked Sculley. It touched one of his values. And he took the job at Apple.
  • The HR director at a large university was known for his ability to hire and retain very competent staff. I interviewed most of his 10 senior staff to learn how he did it. They all said the same thing; he made them feel “special.” And how did he make them feel special? They reported that the director was an excellent observer and listener, and over time he discovered talents in each one, sometimes talents that they didn’t see in themselves. He told each what he saw in them. He gave them expanded opportunities to use those strengths, even in ways that weren’t part of their job description. They learned, they grew, and they thrived in that environment.
  • I’ve used a variation of the HR director’s approach while facilitating collaborative teams. If certain team members aren’t very active in the group’s discussions, or seem to be displeased with the team’s functioning, I sometimes talk with them between meetings. I’ll mention something positive they’ve said or done, and that I think they can contribute a lot to our success. Then I ask how they think the team is doing and what the team needs to do to improve. Usually they open up, and identify something that’s bothering them about the team. Then I ask if they can use some of their strengths to help the team succeed. It often works well. It pulls them in, and everyone wins.

Using pull and seeking win-win solutions takes time. It requires us to think from the other’s point of view. It’s easier and quicker to use “push,” easier to focus only on what we need. With push we can get compliance, but using pull and finding win-win approaches usually results in commitment. And there’s a world of difference between the two.