Collaboration and Career Success

June 30, 2021

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Mark had mixed feelings about his upcoming 25th reunion of his college class. It would be good to see Ashley. Mark and Ashley were the stars of the class. Both had 4.0 GPA’s in a tough major. But as Mark reflected on his college experiences, he wondered what he would have done differently.

Mark was very goal-focused in college. He wanted to maintain a 4.0 average, and he never liked classes where he was put in a group. He didn’t want to risk his grade because of a classmate’s lack of effort. In many cases when group work was required, Mark ended up doing most of the work on his own.

When Mark looked at his classmates’ careers on LinkedIn, he was shocked to see how well they had done. In fact, many of the classmates whom Mark considered to be slackers had done better than he had in their careers.

Mark’s career had become very specialized. He was a subject matter expert and the go-to guy for very technical analyses. Early on, his reluctance to work with others became very evident to his employer. Rather than advancing Mark into leadership positions, he was encouraged to become the company’s technical expert in an important area of the business.

Ashley took a very different approach to college and her career. Ashley was very social, and she thrived in working with others. She had none of Mark’s fear of being dragged down by the lack of effort of classmates. She took it as a challenge to raise the contributions of those who had reputations as being slackers. Her classmates valued Ashley’s sincerity and didn’t want to let her down.

Ashley had a remarkable career. She rose to an executive position more quickly than many of her peers. Ashley gained the reputation of raising the abilities of everyone who worked for her. She was very collaborative and those with whom she worked appreciated the way she reaching out to them. Ashley’s collaborative approach cascaded down through the organization. As a result, her organization saw remarkable results, and Ashley continued to rise within the organization. She became a role model for women from her university. The one thing she stressed when mentoring students was that they should focus on raising the level of everyone they work with.

What Ashley knew, and what Mark failed to realize, was that the ability to collaborate is key to success in virtually every organization today. Choosing to be a single contributor is career-limiting decision.

Unfortunately, universities tend to focus on students who are singularly brilliant but collaboratively deficient. Elite programs often don’t value collaboration as much as they value individual performance. They channel students into careers where expertise may be more of a key to entry than the ability to work with others. Most academic awards are based upon individual achievements rather than collaborative success. What if we changed our academic incentives and instructional approaches to reflect the value of collaboration in most career paths? The Interactivity Foundation’s free Collaborative Discussion Toolkit offers an instructional resource to support the development of essential collaborative skills.

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“If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.” – Booker T. Washington (educator, author, orator, and presidential adviser)

This post is part of our “Think About” education series. These posts are based on composites of real-world experiences, with some details changed for the sake of anonymity. New posts appear on Wednesdays. 

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