How Collaboration and Diversity in the Workplace Promotes Innovation

Companies can only go so far with even the best talent. To succeed, businesses must also show a commitment to continual innovation, says Stephen Dallamore, global chairman of AltoPartners. Among the better ways to generate new ideas, he maintains, is to tap into diversity of thought and skills.

November 6, 2018 – Having the right talent, with the right skills, is the foundation of success for any business. Regardless of their size, companies are desperate for educated, highly skilled, knowledgeable employees who possess the skill-sets that will ensure the business remains viable and sustainable into the future.

At the same time, however, companies must be committed to continual innovation. In times of great change, competition and uncertainty, businesses without new ideas will only fall behind, says Stephen Dallamore, global chairman of AltoPartners and managing director of Search Partners International (SPi) in Johannesburg, in a recent conversation with Hunt Scanlon Media.

“Businesses need to continue to evolve and be innovative to survive, and tapping into diversity of thought and skills within all businesses is one of the best ways for businesses to generate new ideas,” he said. “Great solutions come from simple ideas that have the power to spark major shifts in the business — like Uber and Airbnb. These are the building blocks needed to deliver sustained innovation.”

“Innovation is not just about doing different or new things, it could also be about doing the same things differently or having a simple idea that disrupts a traditional industry,” he said.

Well-Developed Expertise

Mr. Dallamore knows his subject matter well. In 1977, he left the legal profession and started a partnership business called Mast South Africa. Mast was the largest corporate training group in South Africa and was listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in 1987. A decade later, he and three Mast colleagues started Connemara Consulting, a change management consultancy. About a year after that, Mr. Dallamore joined listed company MDM Growth Investments, a private equity fund specializing in entrepreneurial family business, as executive director. In 2002, he joined SPi (then Boyden) as a director, building Boyden SA’s global strategy and acting as the catalyst in right sizing and restructuring the business. He was appointed managing director in 2004.

AltoPartners, where he serves as chairman, is an international alliance of independent executive search firms. It has 52 offices across 31 countries in the Americas, EMEA and Asia-Pacific.

Mr. Dallamore looks askance at “one of the failed new rules of today’s economy,” that says people are expendable and that their labor – “and quite possibly their thinking” – should be eliminated as a cost wherever possible. “Even in this heavily digitized age, humans are at the heart of the business and seen as the ‘operating systems’ of the business,” he said. “The challenge is now how to connect and access them in this digital new normal. The companies and leaders who get that right will flourish. They understand that digital isn’t something you do, it is something you become while still making people matter.”

A business that lacks an appreciation for the value of diversity, whether it be culture, opinion or skill, risks falling behind in the quality and quantity of the ideas it generates. “Boards and the C-suite with a lack of diversity will fall into silo thinking,” said Mr. Dallamore. “Without robust discussion, leaders won’t challenge each other enough in the boardroom and new ideas won’t be produced. There is positive discomfort that comes from healthy challenging discussions, which in turn fosters a culture of change and innovation.”

Stronger Boards

He cites Nokia’s former executive team, which was 100 percent Finnish and had worked together for more than a decade. “Many believe this extreme homogeneity explains why the team failed to see the smartphone threat emerging from Silicon Valley,” said Mr. Dallamore.

Diversity of thought, experience and skills is critical on boards today, as it makes the collective board and C-suite stronger and better able to meet the challenges that lie ahead. Mr. Dallamore quotes his colleague, Kevin Hall, managing partner at AltoPartners Canada/ Bluestone Leadership Consulting, who recently looked to the leading companies of years gone by — Blackberry (RIM), IBM, Digital Equipment, Compaq, Xerox, Kodak, AOL and Wang — and asked, ‘Why are so many of them minor players today? Where are they now (and why)?’

On the other hand, said Mr. Dallamore, Google, Apple and Amazon are great examples of companies reinventing themselves. “The challenge for many boards is how to harness the ‘diversity of thinking’ within the board, and ensure it impacts the strategy going forward,” he said.


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Organizations with diversity of thought have exceptionally strong chairs and collaborative leadership teams. It is these chairs who are insightful and confident enough to drive the change and start by recruiting “non-traditional” board members to their organization. “Gender, race and nationality are not the only kinds of diversity to be aware of,” said Mr. Dallamore. “Age, experience and skills are also important. For this to be a success, it can’t be a token exercise or appointment. It needs to be embraced by the board and organization, with a clear and well understood process for integration and transition. Ongoing value needs to be identified, quantified and embraced.”

New Talent Strategies

For examples of the growing importance of diversity on boards, Mr. Dallamore references two of his colleagues: In India, Sonal Agrawal, AltoPartners founding partner and global operating committee member, Accord | India managing partner and AESC global board member, has seen an increased number of requests for board members who understand millennials, and for those who are conversant with the digital economy. In the U.S., Veronica J. Biggins, managing director AltoPartners USA / Diversified Search, sees younger candidates nominated to the boards to advise companies on the impact of technology and digital disruption, with focus on understanding social media and online threats.

Related: Path to Profitability: The Business Case for Board Diversity

The ability to bring people together from different backgrounds, disciplines, cultures and generations and leverage all they have to offer, is a necessity for leaders. “This requires reinventing their talent strategies and building strong connections across and outside the organization,” said Mr. Dallamore. “Building coalitions and working collaboratively becomes more important as the business grows and the leader takes on more and more responsibility. Collaboration is no longer a nice to have, but increasingly a leadership requirement needed to get results.”


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In a world of partnerships, complex supply chains, outsourced working models and complex organizational structures, leaders must be able to deliver results by working across organizational boundaries, said Mr. Dallamore. “Perhaps in the not too distant future it may also involve people collaborating with some form of artificial intelligence,” he said.

Related: Establish a Diversity Baseline and the Money Will Follow

Promoting Collaboration

The benefits of working together are hard to ignore. Mr. Dallamore offered some of the key outcomes of leaders who promote collaboration:

  • Innovation – Creating opportunities for new thinking, ideas and ultimately business innovations.
  • Amplification of the business’s “employer brand” status – Creating an environment which is seen to encourage and value team work, collaboration and diversity of thought maintains the attractiveness of the business as a place to work.
  • Profitability and long-term business sustainability – Evidence exists that innovative businesses who harness diversity of thought will face the challenges in the market, adapt and to continue to succeed.

Related: Key Activities to Drive Diversity and Inclusion Strategies

Fostering an environment and culture of collaboration takes continual effort from the leadership team. Citing Richard Sterling, AltoPartners Australia’s managing partner, Mr. Dallamore offered seven skills that business leaders need to promote and drive collaboration in the workplace:

  1. Establishing frameworks for collaboration and then getting on with it
  2. Balance of big picture thinking and power of execution
  3. Consulting with teams and stakeholders
  4. Direct communications
  5. Building bridges across key functions
  6. Acceptance or tolerance
  7. Understanding the data and technology required

Being a dynamic, collaborative leader involves much more than just telling people what to do. Effective collaboration requires leaders to have well-developed and practiced skills. “If you want to be an ‘innovation-ready’ organization, then the adoption of innovative behaviors must come first, said Mr. Dallamore. “You change culture by becoming innovative. Innovative organizations are those where people are accessed and challenged to deliver at their highest potential. Diversity of thought is valued and inspiring leaders foster environments where cross-functional collaboration is the business norm.”

Related: Hiring Executives to Increase Investment in Diversity Programs

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