Radical Collaboration

Article Icon Article
Tuesday, August 2, 2022
By Sharon Shinn
Jean Oelwang of Virgin Unite
The president of nonprofit Virgin Unite shares the keys to creating powerful partnerships that can solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.
  • In healthy collaborations, people share a common purpose, use their unique skills, hold their egos in check, and display trust and compassionate empathy.
  • To co-create initiatives with disparate partners, collaborators must feel an intoxicating sense of purpose, share ownership of ideas, and bring unlikely partners to the table.
  • Business schools should nurture morally courageous leaders who understand the power of collaboration and are focused on making business a force for good.

There are no simple answers to the complex global crises we face today, but Jean Oelwang believes the only way to find solutions is to bring together diverse groups of people committed to making the world a better place.

“I believe one root cause of all the issues we face is our focus on hyper individualism,” she says. “One of our biggest opportunities is to become hyper connected so we can radically collaborate for the collective good at the scale and speed we need.”

Oelwang is the president and founding CEO of Virgin Unite, a nonprofit launched in 2004 with the goal of making a difference in the world through collectives that tackle unacceptable issues and seek to create systems for good. Among the groups Virgin Unite has helped to incubate are The Elders, veteran world leaders working toward peace and human rights; The B Team, corporate leaders implementing business practices that are better for people and the planet; and The Carbon War Room (merged with RMI), entrepreneurs focusing on market-based models that reduce carbon emissions.

“While the impact of these collectives has been extraordinary to watch, their influence becomes exponential when they work together,” says Oelwang. “For example, in the lead-up to the Paris Agreement on climate change, The Elders and The B Team both supported the incredible team led by Christiana Figueres, who worked to get consensus on the agreement from countries all over the world. As part of this, The B Team has helped to mobilize a community to reach goals like achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and ending harmful environmental subsidies.”

Oelwang examines the power of partnerships in her new book Partnering, which identifies principles that can be applied to any type of collaboration. She recently shared with AACSB Insights her thoughts on how business schools can harness the power of collectives to make the world a better place.

Virgin Unite already has helped create groups that address enormous international concerns, such as climate change and war. Is there another issue you plan to tackle soon?

A critical opportunity for humanity is to reimagine our partnership with nature, so we are thrilled to be working with Johan Rockström, a professor at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. He is collaborating with other Earth system scientists to identify the nine interconnected planetary boundaries that regulate the stability of the planet. If we breach these boundaries, humanity could face catastrophic and irreversible environmental damage. Several have already been breached in areas such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and chemical pollution.

We want to help make this “planetary boundaries” model a holistic way to measure our impact on the planet’s health. Most importantly, we can use this model to bring together academics, businesses, not-for-profits, and government to work toward bringing our planet back into a safe operating space.

Much social impact is created through collaborations among disparate groups, a process that you describe in Partnering. To find the best partners, do organizations or individuals start with a problem they want to solve and look for other experts? Or do they develop relationships with others and explore what they have in common?

All of the above! Often people are united around a purpose, such as the scientists who discovered that CFCs were destroying the ozone layer and committed the rest of their lives to protecting it. What I call “an intoxicating sense of shared purpose” has been at the center of most great human achievements.

It’s just as valid to find a group of people you have a deep connection with and explore something bigger that lights all your hearts on fire. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield love to say that they were friends before they were partners in building Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.

What’s most important in building any collaboration is making sure the right people are at the table. We need to find not just the easy, comfortable ones who fit like a glove, but also those who make us uncomfortable, whose “electric current of difference” sparks informed, holistic solutions.

What I call “an intoxicating sense of shared purpose” has been at the center of most great human achievements.

You mention that many close relationships are held together by purpose. How do you advise individuals to discover and act on their own purposes?

Taking the time to articulate your own “why” is critical so that you have a clear understanding of what legacy you want to leave in the world. This then serves as a filter to help you understand which collaborations you want to invest time in to increase your impact and become the best version of yourself. You can use tools like Simon Sinek’s Start With Why to get help on this journey.

For our collaborations, we’ve found it helpful to get creative minds around a table to shape a “something bigger” that gets people out of bed in the morning, rather than putting them to sleep.

What are the hallmarks of a solid collaboration?

In a healthy collaboration, people are focused on a common purpose, something that lifts them above any drama and focuses them on what’s important. Everyone’s unique skills are celebrated. Egos are held in check because people have a sense of shared humility grounded in an understanding that they don’t have all the answers. There is a thriving ecosystem of respect, trust, generosity, and compassionate empathy.

What are the signs that a collaboration isn’t working and should be ended?

Here are a few: a lack of shared meaning, an imbalance of commitment, mismatched values, a roller coaster of conflict, and unchecked egos.

One of the key challenges in developing partnerships is helping individuals overcome their differences. How can people with opposing viewpoints find common ground?

Uzo Iweala, the CEO of the The Africa Centre, always says that if you don’t listen to someone, it’s the same as saying that they don’t exist.

Today, we are so polarized that we are no longer hearing one another. We don’t pause to understand why someone holds a certain perspective. So, finding common ground must start with deep, authentic listening and respect.

How we come together is also important. Ideally, people should meet in a safe space where they can express their views freely without being attacked. One of the best ways to create this environment is to include a couple of people who already have a deep connection with each other despite their differences. They can model how to hold a space of love and respect across deeply opposing views.

What does this look like in action?

When I interviewed people for my book, I found that the partners often were radically different. They all created tools to help them celebrate the friction in their partnerships and turn this friction into “sparkles,” or learning moments.

For example, the co-founders of Airbnb had a ritual called “elephants, dead fish, and vomit.” In these weekly meetings, they had open and honest conversations about things no one was talking about, including issues that might have been festering for years.

The leaders of Ben & Jerry’s created “veto power” for the moments they couldn’t come to agreement. This allowed one of them to veto something if they felt strongly about it. While they didn’t use veto power often, it allowed them to preserve their friendship over everything else.

The co-founders of Airbnb had a ritual called “elephants, dead fish, and vomit” where they had honest conversations about things no one was talking about.

Collaboration is occurring on more university campuses as schools launch interdisciplinary initiatives to solve critical problems. How would you advise business faculty to work across disciplines most effectively? How can they deal with the difficulties that inevitably arise?

They must start with an intoxicating purpose that everyone wants to get behind. They also must respect that each discipline brings invaluable wisdom to the table and trust that everyone is coming from a place of good intention.

To ensure that momentum is kept up and the first small bump doesn’t cause the collaboration to blow up, it’s important to have a few leaders across disciplines build deep connections and create a shared approach. It’s also important to bring together teams from the different disciplines to create “magnetic moments” where they can simply be together and deepen their personal relationships.

The ozone community did this so beautifully. Mostafa Tolba, the Egyptian diplomat who was one of the lead architects of the United Nations’ Montreal Protocol, used to assemble everyone in a room and ask them to “take off their cloaks of authority.” He created a safe space where people from opposing sides could come up with shared solutions. When they went back to the negotiating table, they would offer solutions rather than just point out problems and roadblocks.

You have discussed the importance of co-creating initiatives with input from all partners. Why is co-creation so important? What steps are necessary to achieve it?

An idea without co-creation will always be limited to one person’s experiences and skills. A co-created idea can have exponential impact through the wonder and wisdom of multiple brains.

We’ve found five things to be critical for co-creation. These include an intoxicating starting point that provides a framework to get people started and “an open tent” that gives people shared ownership.

Co-creation also benefits from unlikely partners who can offer vastly different opinions. Organizations should constantly ask, “Who is not at the table who should be?” It then needs relational scaffolding. When the initiative has the right meetings, reward structures, roles, and responsibilities, people find it a joy to participate.

Finally, it requires a culture of service and friendship that builds friendships without stifling them and reminds people that they are in service, not in control.

You also have spoken about how important it is for organizations from all different sectors—business, government, and nonprofits—to work together. Why is this so critical?

There is no way we are ever going to be able to solve our interconnected issues and reinvent our global systems without having sectors collaborate at a scale we cannot even begin to imagine. When we researched many great human achievements—like ending apartheid in South Africa, stopping smallpox in India, and protecting the ozone layer—we didn’t hear any stories involving a single superhero or sector. The secret lay in collectives of friends at the center of much larger collaborations.

The only way that we were able to phase out CFCs was through the cooperation of all sectors. Global governments signed on to the Montreal Protocol and put clear targets in place. Businesses worked with competitors to innovate new alternatives. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) worked with everyone to ensure accountability and fairness. Without the cooperation among all sectors, the future of humanity would have been at stake.

How can business schools drive positive change and position themselves to make the greatest societal impact?

Business schools can help the next generation of leaders move away from a focus on hyper individualism, where transactions and extraction are the norm, to a focus on hyper connectedness, where personal relationships and regeneration of nature rule.

Individually, business school leaders can create the intoxicating purpose that enables their schools to act as guiding lights for students and teachers. That purpose might be a broad goal, such as creating a school built on collaboration. Or it might be more specific, such as partnering with the finance industry to change it for good.

Business schools can bring together entire industries across competitive lines to tackle issues such as climate change and inequality.

Collectively, they can take two steps. First, they can work with businesses, NGOs, and other schools to reimagine what it means to have a business education. They can help business move away from defining success solely by profit metrics and move toward defining success by what organizations and leaders can give back to the world.

Second, business schools can be neutral conveners who create unlikely alliances that can scale change. For example, they can bring together entire industries across competitive lines to collectively tackle issues such as climate change and inequality.

Finally, business schools can use their voices to fight against unacceptable issues. They can use their research wisely to shine a light on objectionable business practices.

What kinds of classes or experiences should business schools provide to help students develop the skills they need to tackle immense global issues?

Today’s educational system is mainly based on individual achievement. What if we shift the focus to collective achievement, rewarding people when they are wise enough to find the right partners for exponential results?

Lawyer and author Bryan Stevenson speaks eloquently about the importance of proximity. Students need to be close to the issues—and close to the people who are impacted the most. Students should visit prisons to understand why people are there and to co-create the future of the prison system with restorative justice at the center. Students should visit a small island nation whose entire existence relies on stopping climate change, and they should work with local people to come up with solutions. The virtual world makes it easier for business schools to break free from their ivory towers and give students these experiences.

Professors should encourage healthy listening and discourse by bringing in guest speakers whose radically different views might be unsettling to teachers and students.

In October, you will be speaking at AACSB’s Societal Impact Conference, to an audience of business school academics, students, and NGO representatives. What do you plan to say to them?

My hope is to encourage the audience to collaborate with each other, with leaders from other sectors, and with their students to make business schools one of the most important forces for good in a world that desperately needs it.

Earlier this year, you spoke to business students at Loyola University Maryland. What were your main messages to them?

Flip your perspective from what you can get out of your relationships to what you can give to the world through your relationships. Think hard about who and what you want to love into being. Surround yourself with people who will make you the best version of yourself. As Richard Reed, co-founder of Innocent Drinks, says, “We are nothing more than the summation of our relationships, so choose wisely.”

I also wanted to give students a message of hope. Humanity has come together in the past for great collective human achievements, like protecting the ozone layer, and we can do it again. In the decades to come, their shared leadership can change the course of history.

Sharon Shinn
Editor, AACSB Insights
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
Subscribe to LINK, AACSB's weekly newsletter!
AACSB LINK—Leading Insights, News, and Knowledge—is an email newsletter that brings members and subscribers the newest, most relevant information in global business education.
Sign up for AACSB's LINK email newsletter.
Our members and subscribers receive Leading Insights, News, and Knowledge in global business education.
Thank you for subscribing to AACSB LINK! We look forward to keeping you up to date on global business education.
Weekly, no spam ever, unsubscribe when you want.