Take Yourself from Individual Expert to Expert Collaborator

By Tom Davidson

Almost no one starts a career as a manager, team player, or formal leader of a team. Most successful people learn a technical skill or other body of knowledge that they apply as individual contributors. If you do a good job at that, you will very likely be considered for promotion and may very well become a supervisor in short order.

But just because you’re a great individual expert doesn’t mean you’ll be an expert leader, team player, business partner or collaborator. In fact, the skill sets for one are different from the other, and not everyone makes a great collaborator.

If you want to be a successful leader, team player, business partner or collaborator, you will need to learn the skills sets.


To work effectively with others, you need to be able to connect with them as individuals. That means you have to do the following:

  • Discover common ground. What do you have in common with the other person? What are your mutual goals and interests in the relationship?
  • Create opportunities for regular contact. How often will you stay in touch during the partnership? How will you meet or communicate to keep things on track?
  • Develop a framework for your working relationship. What are your ground rules for working together? How will you resolve problems and conflicts when they arise?


  • Ask powerful questions. The most important tool in any partnership is questions, and the best kind are open-ended ones that start with “what” and “how.”
  • Practice dialogue with your partner. Dialogue is the art of conversation, and it has two parts, advocating for one’s ideas and being open to those of others.
  • Understand the codes. Based on their personalities and backgrounds, everyone has unique communication preferences. Learn your collaboration partner’s communication styles and adapt to those.


  • Make plans jointly. As an individual contributor, you will be used to doing things yourself, and that includes making plans and executing them. In a partnership, the plans most likely to be executed are those developed jointly, so learn and practice brainstorming to get all possible ideas on the table.
  • Learn to adapt as you go. Even the best-laid plans will need adaptation and flexibility as events unfold. So it behooves you to be adaptable to changing conditions and unexpected events.
  • Persevere. While you might have the option of changing or ending relationships in your personal life, when you are put on a work team, assigned a direct report, or have a customer, that’s rarely an option. So you will need to learn to forgive mistakes and ask for forgiveness yourself from time to time.

When it comes to working with others, it doesn’t just take two to tango, it takes you to tango. So if you want to be a successful leader, become a success business partner first. It’s the nature or people, and it’s the nature of leadership.

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