CEO Diaries – Are you a fierce competitor or a generous collaborator?

Four hands each holding a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. All of the pieces are joined together. Are you a fierce competitor or a generous collaborator?

Sense Chief Executive, Richard Kramer, reflects on collaboration in the sector.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, Chief Executives across the sector have been spending more time together, courtesy of video conferencing. We are much more curious about our fellow CEO’s leadership and how other organisations are responding to the challenges of Covid-19. We are more willing to talk openly and freely, share ideas and learn from each other. It is clear that we need each other more than ever, and I wonder whether Covid-19 permanently shifted the way we engage, collaborate and relate with one another?

As Chief Executives, much of our approach to leadership is hardwired – we sell ideas, run meetings, manage others, and communicate. We are able to get it right with our teams and our own organisations. We do it every day.  Generous leaders go further. They instinctively reach out to others in their organisation. They are generous in sharing information, skills and knowledge knowing that it encourages others to succeed. But all too often that generous leadership stops at the boundary of their own organisation.

Too often, even generous leaders are hardwired into seeing other charities as competitors not collaborators. That makes change difficult.

Fierce competitors and generous collaborators

Imagine a video conference. Six participants on the same call could hold different perceptions and participate in the same conversation in different ways. 

Imagine that the first three participants are ‘fierce competitors’. They find group meetings inherently stressful, uncomfortable and threatening. The fierce competitors typically find it hard to engage and focus – they are present on the call but not actively listening to others. A typical behaviour might be flitting between the Zoom meeting and their own emails or messaging on their phones (if you feel under threat you tend to resort to the familiar routines of email, akin to comfort eating when under pressure). If not distracted, they are often too busy looking inwards and formulating their own responses to the conversation, not listening to others. That means they can’t give the meeting their full attention. They interpret points of conversation that reinforce or challenge their own status, authority and self-esteem.   

The second group of individuals at the same meeting are ‘generous collaborators.’ They are active listeners and give their full attention to others. They are really focused on what the other person is saying so they are using all the energies to listen not make a judgement on others. They nod their heads and smile as they want to give encouragement to others and show you believe in them. They don’t think they have all the answers but willing to share their insights and perspectives. They are happy to pool ideas and resources and work with one another. They usually also come away from the meeting feeling better about themselves and armed with at least one piece of learning to take away for their own organisation. They might brainstorm an area for joint working on the call and leave that meeting committed to turn that shared idea into a project after the meeting.

Six participants. Two different experiences. If you regard another CEO as a potential threat, everything will be viewed through that lens. It means you won’t change the way you listen. You won’t get the same moment of insight in which you can learn from others. Leaders who want to change the way they think or behave need to deepen their own insights and how they view each other. 

“Collaboration takes practice if you want it to become a habit.”

I’ve been trying to develop into a more generous collaborator over the last year. Making tentative strides pre Covid-19 and accelerating that behaviour since then.

Here are some examples:


Joint working between Sense and RNIB came about through an open discussion between the RNIB Chair and me, with an honest appraisal of our respective organisational strengths and weaknesses, how we wanted to position ourselves differently, and how we might pool our resources to work more effectively.

This autumn, Sense took over RNIB’s College in Loughborough and Sense and RNIB are working together to deliver an Information and Advice service.  Sense worked with RNIB as they understand the needs of the people we support and can provide improvements to our information and advice offer.  Sense has extensive experience in providing educational services to people with sight loss and other disabilities and we worked closely together to make sure the transition to Sense was as smooth as possible for students and colleagues.  Trust and clear communication at a Chair level played an important part as both organisations felt reassured that any challenges would be discussed openly and honestly. This also gave trustees greater confidence to approve the subsequent agreed areas of partnership.

Working with Funders

CEOs from five organisations; Contact, Ambitious About Autism, Mencap, National Autistic Society and Sense came together as a peer group part to provide mutual support to each other. From those conversations, came a gem of an idea, which we developed together into a joint proposition.  Each of us had previously worked separately with the same funder but not together with them.  It was very powerful to articulate a jointly developed plan in which we had put the needs of disabled children and families ahead of our own organisation   It worked – as it was a meeting of minds – individuals who were keen to work together and eager to demonstrate the benefits of a united front to the funder.

Supporting smaller charities

At Sense, we have a track record of supporting smaller localised charities. Most recently, we worked with a local social care service to provide support to their adults and families struggling at home without a service. We made our virtual online activity videos available to them, extended our buddying service to the individuals they support, sent arts and wellbeing boxes to homes, and offered to provide specialist support from our practitioners where individuals have got particularly stressed and anxious at home as they can’t do their familiar routines. Our motivation is simple. We want to help other providers who are struggling. Sense has a range of tools and resources so why wouldn’t we make them available to others who could benefit from them?

So what lessons have I learnt about collaboration in the sector?

Key lessons

  1. Be careful using the word ‘collaboration’ particularly for the first time. In the past, I have had meetings with other CEOs, which I think have gone well. I then introduce the concept of collaboration or joint working and the meeting fizzles out.  If you are a fierce competitor, the word collaboration can just amplify stress and discomfort. Your fierce competitive brain sends out powerful warning messages and you back off.  At the same time, if you have successfully worked well with others, talk loud and proud about collaboration.  Good examples of generous collaboration are infectious and encourage others to go down the same road.
  2. Collaboration is hard work. It takes time and effort. Everyone comes to the table with their own ideas and reaching a workable compromise take time and skills. We don’t train people to collaborate. We train people to work in silos. We talk about collaboration a lot but shifting this from conversation to reality is something we all need to work on.
  3. Generous collaboration is thinking about working together first not as an after-thought – otherwise the default will always be to go it alone.  It might involve actively giving up a share in the market or a percentage sum in a grant. It is about putting the interests of your organisation to once side in the interest of the people the respective organisations support. It is a powerful feeling when you get it right. It really gives you a sense of meaning and self-satisfaction.  It encourages you to do even more for each other.
  4. We talk a lot about big charities working with smaller charities. I think the bigger challenge is UK wide charities working with other national charities. That is where the competitive gene hits in, and for many that is where the hard work and change needs to take place. 
  5. Collaboration doesn’t always work. Sometimes, you will be disappointed. There might not be a meeting of minds. People might not prioritise things in the same way or see the situation as similar to you. The timing might not be right.  Or the talk will be positive and coupled with the usual social media posts, ‘Wonderful to speak to X and Y. Hashtag collaboration.’ The collaboration box is ticked but it doesn’t mean that action will follow. Don’t worry too much. Sometimes, you give it your best shot and it wasn’t meant to happen.

As a sector, I believe we are stronger together and should be actively seeking our opportunities to work with one another. This leads to better support and ultimately better services for the people we support. Let’s all try and practice that message and be generous collaborators when we go on our next video conference call.

Author: Richard Kramer

Richard Kramer is the Chief Executive Officer of Sense.

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