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Breaking Down Silos and Promoting Collaboration Through Co-leadership

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Summary: The complexity of the current environment has increased the need for specialized expertise. This requires changing the way we work, and switch to a Co-Leadership approach.

Sophie is an HR Leader in an organization that is going through a period of major upheaval. The situation calls for bold action. She needs to temporarily lay off staff, and is trying to help them find other job opportunities in order to stay connected to them. Being a creative person, she and the president decide to build strategic and innovative partnerships with companies facing a temporary work overload. Her objective: Together, turn a challenge into an opportunity.

Jasmine has worked as a municipal labor relations consultant for several years. She is responsible for training managers on the application of collective agreements. Aware of the significant HR impacts of the renewals, she asks Ricardo, the organizational development Leader to co-build the strategy to enable managers to better apply the new collective agreements. Together, working in the spirit of Co-Leadership, they dare to implement interdisciplinary codevelopment groups that help break down silos, enable the managers to learn from one another, and improve their team management on a day-to-day basis.

Co-Leadership: A Cross-Discipline Approach

Co-Leadership is a response to an ever-changing business environment that requires agility, creativity, ongoing learning, and collaboration (1,2,3,4). As illustrated by the two previous examples, complexity has increased the need for specialized expertise.

If we want to innovate, we must be able to connect different points of view, thereby enabling us to become more creative, develop our ideas, and be open to new possibilities. And this means working differently (5,6,7).

Switching to a Co-Leadership approach is more than simply collaborating with your colleagues or building cooperation between networks. It means:

  • To establish partnerships with people who have different areas of expertise and surrounding yourself with allies who have different points of view. The intention is to grow, improve and co-create more across silos. This will allow to achieve more cross-discipline results (8).
  • To break down the hierarchy by acknowledging that each person is a potential leader, who can influence situations and people regardless of their role, i.e., at centre stage, a supporting player or behind the scenes.
  • To build a new kind of collaborative, co-learning approach that will guide the intentions and actions of all team members.
  • To stimulate creativity by combining talents, developing synergy and a common vision, sharing responsibilities, and learning from each other.
  • To access resources and spaces to get more engaged, work together, be creative and co-learn with more varied, cross-discipline expertise. Now, the intersection of deep area of specialization, combined with more general capabilities is defined as “T skills” – for individuals and Teams (5,6,7)
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Co-Leadership speeds up projects and strengthens teams

The way we think about teamwork is changing. We are working more as agile teams, in networks, on cross-functional projects and collaborating with different areas of expertise, including full-time, consulting and contract resources, partners, etc., who combine their skills for a given period.

Unlike the humble leadership (10) and conscious leadership (11) models, which are geared more towards business leaders and executive committees, Co-Leadership is for everyone: directors, team managers, entrepreneurs, consultants, self-employed workers, and includes all professionals and associates working in an organization.

Co-leadership helps develop cross-discipline skills such as collaboration, communication – listening, questioning, feedback – learning together and building successful partnerships, all of which speeds up projects and builds teams.

Co-Leadership challenges people to change their attitude, to become humbler and more trusting, more co-creative and more involved. It also means they must work to stay focused on the common goal when differences of opinion arise.

Interested in Co-Leadership?

If you want to implement Co-Leadership in your organization, here are some questions you should ask yourself:

  • Would you describe your main decision-making style as hierarchical? Authoritative? Collaborative?
  • How often do reach out to team members, colleagues and contacts in other areas and ask them for ideas?
  • How do you react when someone who works in another field gives you advice and/or suggests ideas that are different from your own?
  • How well do you really know the strengths and abilities of each team member? Of your colleagues? Of each person in your network?
  • Do you draw inspiration from a variety of sources, some of them unconventional?
  • Do you create synergy by creatively aligning your strengths with those of others?
  • Do your team members really learn from one another? Are they challenged by a variety of internal and external educational resources?
  • What challenges do you face that require creative solutions and different areas of expertise
  • What initiatives are you implementing to encourage more cross-discipline, Co-Leadership projects?

Because collaboration and Co-Leadership encourage different points of view, team members are able to come up with more creative solutions, projects are more well-founded and have fewer blind spots (12,13,14). Team members become more agile, bold and courageous, as well as developing tomorrow’s skills (15), thereby enabling them to face tomorrow’s challenges, which will, in turn, lead to improved performance (16,17).

This is a real opportunity to make a real difference. In 2021, isn’t that what we’re all aiming for?

About the authors (in alphabetical order)

Catherine Bédard, M.Ed., CRHA.  Coordinator, Continuing Education, the Union des Municipalités du Québec.

Nathalie Sabourin, M.Sc, CRHA, Strengths-based Coach for Teams and Leaders. Expert et author in redevelopment and participative learning. Founder of Sabourin Consult Group inc.


  1. Guide des compétences des CRHA et CRIA :
  2. Gosselin, A. (2020). Le leg de la Covid19 : une culture de collaboration forte. Vol. 23-2. P.38-40.
  3. Grenier, S. et Gosselin, A. “Le leadership collectif” (2020). vol.23-1, p.22-25.
  4. Slade, S. (2018). Going Horizontal. Boston : Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
  5. Oster, M. (2020). Level Up. Paper Ravens Books. P.194-195
  6. CFA Institute (2019) – Investment professional of the future
  7. Janaki Mythily Kumar (2015). Time for T? Leading a team of T shaped design professionals
  8. Sabourin, N. et Lemyre, C. (2017). Les 7 conditions pour réussir la transformation de la fonction RH en service culture et talentCoin de l’expert
  9. Site web de Harold Jarche :
  10. Shein, E. et Schein P. (2018). Humble Leadership : The Power of Relationships, Openness, and Trust. Boston. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
  11. Cayer, M. et al. (2020). L’intelligence émotionnelle du futur : la compétence managériale du futur. Hors série 2020. P.48-49.
  12. Gino, F (2019). Cracking the Code of sustained Collaboration. HBR. Nov-Déc 2019.
  13. Kotter, J., (2017). 8 Steps To Accelerate Change (ebook). Kotter International.
  14. Garver Berger, J. (2019) : Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps, How to thrive in complexity. Stanford : Stanford Briefs, Stanford University Press, 145 p.
  15. Guénette, M. et Bédard, C. (2017). Le candidat viscéral : un guide pratique en sélection pour un regard approfondi sur le candidat. Montréal : Éditions Yvon Blais, 291 p.
  16. Gardner, H. (2017). Smart Collaboration : How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos. HBR Press.
  17. Sabourin, N. et Lefebvre, F. (2017). Collaborer et agir, mieux et autrement : le guide pratique pour implanter des groupes de codéveloppement. Montréal : Lulu. p.210