Mobilizing leadership: Leading cross-sector partnerships as a social movement

blogimage_mobilizing leadershipBy Kevin McDermott and Barry Colbert, Wilfrid Laurier University, and Elizabeth Kurucz, University of Guelph

Bringing people together to solve social or environmental issues is challenging. It is challenging because the issues are complex and because the people often come from different societal sectors, each with their own goals and motives. Non-profits are usually influenced by their mission, businesses by the needs of their customers and the achievement of profit, and government by political tensions. These divergent influences make partnerships hard to navigate from a leadership perspective. Collective action of stakeholders from across sector boundaries rarely emerges without deliberate leadership actions that effectively navigate these differences. We were interested in this unique leadership challenge and conducted research to learn about the intentional leadership activities undertaken by individuals or organizations that foster collective action, spanning sector boundaries, to solve complex social issues. We call these activities “Mobilizing Leadership.”

To effectively facilitate cross-sector collaborations, individuals and organizations sometimes take a leadership role and act as convenors. We examined the leadership activities of seven convening organizations that successfully brought stakeholders from at least three societal sectors together to achieve socially or environmentally focused goals. We conducted interviews and observed stakeholder interaction at public and private events and interpreted what we saw through the lens of social movements.

Collective action of stakeholders from across sector boundaries rarely emerges without deliberate leadership actions that effectively navigate these differences.

When people think of social movements they often think about protests, revolutions, and riots, but social movements may also be thought of as collective action by a diverse group of individuals and organizations working together toward a common goal. Sometimes this collective action is leaderless and emerges as a grassroots process, and other times leadership action fosters the grassroots collective action. Our data examined the latter, and we found that effective leaders of cross-sector collaborations engaged in activities that foster social movements. These leadership activities include: 1) identifying political opportunity, 2) creating interorganizational processes and structures, and 3) thoughtful and deliberate communication strategies.

Identifying Political Opportunity
Leaders within convening organizations identified opportunities that might lead to active participation of stakeholders within a cross-sector collaboration. These opportunities existed both at the organization and at the societal level. Leaders identified the following important factors:

  1. What do others think of you and your convening organization? This involved the identification and acknowledgement of the perception among collaborators of the convenor’s legitimacy. Perceived legitimacy is something that needs to be explicitly understood and improved upon, as leaders noted that high perceived legitimacy is one key component of political opportunity.
  2. Existence of champions within stakeholder organizations. Leaders of convenors of cross-sector collaborations identified people within organizations who wanted to participate in the partnerships. These champions became advocates within their respective organizations and acted as ambassadors for mobilizing resources and continued participation in the collaboration.
  3. Popular opinion aligning with your goals. Leaders recognized when popular opinion shifted to the point where stakeholders may be more apt to actively participate in the partnership. This may be due to pressure from employees, customers, or community members.
  4. The risk of government regulations. As stakeholders recognize that policymakers may intervene in an industry to mandate changes, they may be more apt to choose to collaborate if they know action may be forced upon them.

Creating Interorganizational Processes and Structures
One of the key tasks of convening organizations is to bring stakeholders together. This involves not only simple administrative tasks such as scheduling meetings but also more complex activities related to interpersonal relationships. We observed the following leadership activities:

  1. Intentionally building trust between stakeholders. This included the creation of individual-level relationships between representatives from stakeholder groups. Creating time for face-to-face meetings is important, especially between stakeholders with divergent viewpoints.
  2. Finding legitimate “first-followers.” During the creation phase of a cross-sector collaboration, leaders of convening organizations intentionally sought out the participation of high profile stakeholders. These high profile stakeholders help to build legitimacy for the collaboration through their association with the collaboration.
  3. Assigning ownership and accountability to stakeholders. Stakeholders were assigned specific tasks and responsibilities within the collaborations. These included mutually agreed upon deliverables, timelines, and outcomes. This was perceived to have helped to ensure that stakeholders felt engaged and strengthened the likelihood of their continued participation.
  4. Stable funding from operations — Run the collaboration like a business. Many of the convening organizations received funding from stakeholder partners in the form of membership payments or by monetizing products or services. This revenue in conjunction with ad-hoc funding from grants or donations created a stable platform for the collaboration to be sustainable over the long-term.
  5. Effective exchange of viewpoints. Convening organizations created formal and informal processes to ensure that members of the collaboration would regularly discuss issues. Examples of this include: formal working groups to collaboratively build project charters and the intentional creation of seating arrangements to maximize serendipitous conversations between stakeholders.
  6. Utilizing the strengths of each stakeholder. One of the advantages of collaborating across sectors is the ability to utilize the organizational skills and abilities developed by the various partners. Leaders of convening organizations aligned the ownership of tasks according to stakeholder skills and abilities.

Communication Strategies
We observed that intentional communication strategies were particularly important in a cross-sector collaboration to ensure alignment of motivations and activities of stakeholders. These strategies included building talking points for media and for stakeholder communication. These narratives related to changing minds or suggesting solutions. Specifically, we saw the following narratives emerging from convening organizations:

  1. Bringing attention to the social or environmental issue. The issue at the heart of the cross-sector collaboration was the most frequently espoused communication narrative. This involved awareness building or advocacy techniques related to the social or environmental issue.
  2. Highlighting the overlap of stakeholders’ motivations. It is easy to identify the differences between stakeholders from various societal sectors, but collaboration leaders focused instead on the similarities between stakeholder motivations, using terms such as “co-benefits” and “win-win scenarios.”
  3. Highlighting the failure of past “go-it-alone” initiatives. Leaders sometimes highlighted unsuccessful past attempts to solve a social or environmental issue that were undertaken by a single societal sector. Utilizing these stories as justification for cross-sector collaboration was a frequent narrative.
  4. Collaboration as a solution unto itself. The act of collaborating between sectors was described as a part of the solution to the social or environmental issue. A collaborative approach, as opposed to a combative approach, is not always common, especially where stakeholders may oppose each other’s actions. For example, an environmentally focused cross-sector collaboration may celebrate the accomplishments of a landfill company that incrementally improves their waste diversion, rather than dismissing their business model entirely as unsustainable.
  5. Being associated with the collaboration is good for business. Leaders often highlighted how the associational value of being part of the collaboration was good for the retention of socially/environmentally minded customers and employees. Also, the credibility afforded to smaller stakeholder partners based on their association with large legitimate partners was another reason to collaborate.
  6. We’re all in this together. Finally, a common refrain that emerged from our research sites involved the collective nature of the social and environmental issues that were at the heart of each of the cross-sector collaborations. Narratives emphasizing the shared nature of our societal commons became the foundation of various communication strategies.

Leadership of cross-sector collaboration is complex and multi-faceted. It requires thinking about the collaboration as a social movement, and the activities necessary to mobilize stakeholders into collective action involve political astuteness, knowledge of interorganizational processes, and communication acumen. Viewing leadership through a social movement lens resonates strongly with current events, and opens rich opportunity for new insights on the leadership required to make these initiatives successful. Building on the understanding of how convening organizations engage in mobilizing leadership to catalyze collaboration will help move us toward building the integral commons of stakeholder interests that global sustainability requires.

Kevin McDermott is an Assistant Professor of Business Technology Management in the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University. Kevin has a PhD in Management from the College of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph, specializing in Organizational Leadership. Kevin’s research examines resource mobilization in social entrepreneurial ventures.

Barry Colbert is Associate Professor of Policy and Strategic Management in the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, and is the director of The Co-operators Centre for Business and Sustainability. He has served as adjunct faculty and taught at the Copenhagen Business School, Kedge Business School (Marseille), Audencia (Nantes), and the Ontario College of Art and Design (Toronto, ON). Colbert also serves as Board Chair of Sustainable Waterloo Region, a collaborative non-profit organization focused on advancing the environmental sustainability of organizations across Waterloo Region.

Elizabeth Kurucz is Associate Professor of Leadership and Organizational Management in the College of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph. Her research program is focused on the role of organizations in building social-ecological resilience, specifically: organizational change toward more sustainable business practices; relational leadership and sustainability; multi-sector collaboration and societal learning and; management education for sustainability.