Towards a governance of trust: Leading collectively in multi-stakeholder partnerships

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    For Agenda 2030 to succeed, joint CSO-business partnerships become increasingly important. However, their success hinges on the capacity to lead change collectively. Governance structures need to reflect this.

    The recently adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are not only complex and interlinked, but also challenging to achieve by 2030. As partnerships between civil society organisations (CSOs) and business form a vital part of SDGs implementation, their ability to succeed is paramount. Yet, both sides are pushed beyond their comfort zone as they rapidly have to shift the way they think, act and, above all, the way they lead. Can business learn from leadership in CSOs and vice versa and will this enhance impact?

    When it comes to the implementation of SDGs, no single actor holds the solution (Kuenkel and Schaefer, 2013). Instead each actor contributes an essential parcel of knowledge, a puzzle piece which counts. Yet, at the same time the organisational cultures of CSOs and business are very different and so are their leadership cultures. While businesses mainly build their success on facts and performance, CSOs primarily thrive on relationship building and a mission-driven cause. However, rather than being a ‘nice-to-have’ skill, the capacity of organisational actors to lead collectively is a necessary condition for success. Can this approach work across such differences in organisational culture? A report by ICS Centre analysing 330 multi-stakeholder partnerships, suggests that leadership is the first building block for success. But the report also states: “While we recognise that good leadership is a red thread through the literature that describes successful partnerships, it remains a vague concept.” Moreover, leading collectively, across the boundaries of several institutions, challenges the traditional view of leadership as an individual competence within a hierarchical setting. Instead it invites a shift towards a more systemic view. This means: 1. Looking at multi-stakeholder partnerships between CSOs and business as complex (although in many aspects complementary) living systems, which require a new approach towards leadership. 2. Assessing leadership success as the capacity of a collective to drive positive change, rather than just the skill-set of individuals.

    Multi-stakeholder partnership as complex living

    An important concept with regards to CSO-business partnerships can be found across all biological ecosystems: Loosely interconnected parts – actors or organisations - are dependent on each other for survival – success - and effectiveness. In addition, a biological eco-system thrives when the individual species thrive – albeit in a dynamic balance. The interest of the individual and the interest of the whole are intrinsically linked and both ends of the spectrum of nested eco-systems must therefore be strong. Similarly, in CSO-business partnerships, success hinges on the strength of partners, on a shared interest, and on the pursuit of individual interests as well as collectively created value for the whole. However, despite this mutual dependency, CSOs are often perceived as less powerful than business. Can partnering work when actors are not equal?

    Much of the planning and implementation logic, within multi-stakeholder partnerships, is still built on a mechanical worldview; yet, a new approach is needed when creating collective change on a broad scale. Leading change in such complex laboratories requires stronger collective action wherever, and in whichever form, it is needed in order to create collective impact (Kania and Kramer, 2011). In this way, CSO-business-partnerships can be viewed as laboratories for new forms of organising human (inter)action in networks, movements, and emergent organisational structures. Nevertheless, it can be unsettling for both sides to discover that they are moving into an experiment with no clear outcomes. Agreements, goal-setting, joint strategic planning, governance and management structures can hold the anxiety at bay. However, they too need to serve a more important purpose – to facilitate widespread collective action for the change envisaged. Enabling more systems-based leadership approaches can assist with this transition.

    Leadership as the capacity of a collective

    When driving impact in CSO-business partnerships it helps to view them as collaborative eco-systems. Such systems require collective energy and a diversity of actors to not only create a future, but also to sustain a path towards success. In order for the 2030 Agenda to succeed, the joint capacity of leaders as catalysts of positive change will become increasingly important – no matter, if they come from businesses or CSOs. Furthermore, although the personal capacity to lead is crucial, in partnership, such a capacity does not automatically translate into more productive collective action. There are numerous examples of how individual efforts clash with existing structures, which then often leads to hindering, rather than advancing, efforts. Yet, much of the institutional world, and its logic of planning and implementation, still focuses on the individual leader rather than the system he or she operates in.

    Therefore, leadership in CSO-business partnerships needs to find new ways of invigorating human competencies for collaboration. For example, if a sense of ownership is high, then self-responsible, yet collective, action, with voluntary alignment of overall goals and strong mutual accountability, will follow. Similarly, although monitoring and evaluation is important, a complex cross-organisational system cannot be controlled in the same way an organisation can. Achieving collective impact rests on numerous intangible ingredients of which only a few can be contained, agreed upon and merged into plans, agreements, measurements, and rules. Albeit the latter are important, leading change collectively requires actors to understand and consciously manage the intangible systemic ingredients as well.

    A systems-approach to governance in multi-stakeholder settings

    In a systems-approach, partnerships can be seen as complex yet purposeful human change endeavours - with the potential to shift or re-arrange existing societal settings and overcome organisational limitations. Leadership here is a co-creative process that often begins with a small group of dedicated initiators and aims at profound collective change. Governance models in partnering need to take into account that results are achieved more easily when people trust each other personally, are confident about each other’s serious commitment and open to iterative learning. The crux of governance is in how far it supports and maintains trust that already exists. It is not a substitute for a lack of trust between partners. The ingredients for successful CSO-business partnerships lie deeper.

    Enabling ingredients for collective leadership

    There are a number of principles in complex living eco-systems that are helpful to remember for partnerships requiring collective leadership.

    1. There is an inherent drive in life towards evolution through creating future possibilities, which translates in partnerships as the willingness to work together towards a future goal that benefits all. Business often translates this principle in focused decisiveness and CSO in mission. Acknowledging both is important.
    2. There is a need for sufficient containment and boundaries in all living structures that allow cohesive identities to emerge - which translates in partnerships between CSO and business as the need to manage reliable and transparent processes, acknowledge each other’s identity, ensure inclusivity in decision-making, and find governance structures that work for both organisational cultures.
    3. There is a zest for novelty, adaptation, and the ability to recover from disturbances – which translates in partnerships as the openness of both partners for new solutions and the capability to change course when needed. Governance structures need to be learning structures.
    4. There is a vast network of multiple and mutually reinforcing, recursive feedback loops in all walks of life – which translates in partnerships as the need for a high quality dialogic communication and transparent information. Businesses will have to learn that it takes time to generate trust.
    5. There is the attention to the whole in life as much as to the part in a culture of mutual support - which translates in partnerships as the commitment to a larger course, the negotiated interests and the emotional excitement about the ability to make a difference. This means that the partner organisations will inevitably change through the joint effort. Both governance and management structures in CSO-business partnerships will have to take the recursive impact on the organisation into account.
    6. There is a sixth, essential ingredient, typical of human life: the ability to become conscious about the way we think and act, an understanding for each other and a drive to reconcile differences. This human competence to observe while acting, to step into the shoes of the other stakeholder is a cornerstone of leading success in CSO-business partnerships.
    Hence, although leading change in CSO-business partnerships requires knowledge and application of more rational success factors such as goal-setting, governance structures, accountability, result monitoring and agreements, it is also important to more consciously navigate the underlying enabling ingredients for constructive systemic co-creation (OECD, 2015). An accessible meta-level guiding model, such as the Collective Leadership Compass (Kuenkel, 2016) could help identify and therefore strengthen the collective leadership capacity of a group of actors. The model was derived from 20 years of practice in complex multi-stakeholder settings. It is a practice-oriented approach to leading complex change by attending to a pattern of human competences in the five dimensions of future possibilities: engagement, innovation, humanity, collective intelligence, and wholeness. Although the five dimensions are not new, what is new is paying attention to their joint presence and the positive effect this has on the quality of leading collaboration in a systemic way. Lastly, more investigation and observation is also needed to overcome a current vagueness when describing leadership issues in multi-stakeholder partnerships, especially as the world moves towards the 2030 Agenda. If we use this opportunity to learn to lead collectively, and enhance the enormous potential that lies in partnerships as collaborative eco-systems, we could shift human evolution into a new definition of progress. References: ICS Centre. 2014. Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships Building Blocks for Success. International Civil Society Centre. Kania, J. and M. Kramer. 2011. Collective Impact, Stanford Social Innovation Review, 9(1), Winter. Kuenkel, P. 2016. The Art of Leading Collectively: Co-Creating a Sustainable, Socially Just Future. Chelsa Green. Kuenkel, P. and K. Schaefer. 2013. Shifting the way we co-create. How we can turn the challenges of sustainability into opportunities. The Collective Leadership Institute. OECD. 2015. Development Co-operation Report 2015: Making Partnerships Effective Coalitions for Action. Paris: OECD Publishing. About the author Petra Kuenkel is a Member of the Club of Rome and Executive Director of the Collective Leadership Institute.
    This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 5, Issue 2  (March/April 2016).
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