Interview with Leadership and Collaboration Thought Leader Ian McDermott
ian-mcdermottIan McDermott is a thought leader in the field of leadership, innovation and collaboration, and has dedicated his life to giving people the tools to deal with the challenges they face, and the skills to create their own solutions so that they can realise their dreams.

Ian is the founder of International Teaching Seminars (ITS), and has worked with hundreds of organisations and thousands of people. Based in the UK and the US, he has a global perspective working with international companies, and from practical experience he knows what it takes to run a long-term successful business. He is also a UKCP accredited psychotherapist and a Diplomate in Professional Coaching of the International Academy of Behavioural Medicine, Counselling and Psychotherapy. He has pioneered Leadership and Innovation Coaching and has literally trained a generation of coaches - being described by the Independent as "the coaches’ coach”.

Ian is a prolific author; you may be familar with his books The Art of Systems Thinking, The NLP Coach, and The Coaching Bible. His most recent is The Collaborative Leader: The Ultimate Leadership Challenge, which what we will be discussing in more detail in this interview.

So without further ado, allow me to introduce today's guest: Ian McDermott.

Hi Ian, thanks so much for stopping by the Activia Expert Insights section – could you tell us a little more about yourself?

In a nutshell I spend a lot of my time advising senior leaders and coaching the next generation to be innovative leaders. I hold a variety of positions in both the UK and US and I’m also committed to making cutting edge tools and techniques available through public programs. That’s why nearly 30 years ago I founded International Teaching Seminars.

How and when did you become interested in leadership coaching?

From almost as soon as I started coaching leaders back in the early 90’s I was aware that so often leaders needed to learn to be more themselves and to encourage the different talent they had around them to do the same. So rather than teaching ‘slick tricks’ I focused on starting from the inside and bringing out more of the leader hidden within.

Your new book, The Collaborative Leader: the Ultimate Leadership Challenge has just come out.  Could you tell us a bit about it and what made you want to write about collaborative leadership?

the-collaborative-leaderI have spent virtually my entire professional career collaborating with people to create new projects, some of which have flourished, some of which haven’t. You could say I’m a serial collaborator. Over the years people have often asked me how I do it, but they’ve also expressed concern about being ripped off or it being too fraught.

I think this is really unfortunate because collaboration is the secret to success in any human endeavour.

Being able to collaborate and to promote collaborative working practices is one of the most important skills any leader can develop. That’s why for some time I've been eager to put together some of the how-to’s in a book.  I do so much work in organisations where it is clear that these skills are sorely needed. My hope is that the book will help people develop these skills more easily.

I've written this book with Michael Hall, as collaboration is something we both passionately care about. It also just makes sense to me that if you're writing about collaboration it's a good idea to collaborate! It's taken way longer than either of us imagined but we kept at it even though our schedules were already really full. (This is one of the secrets of successful collaboration!)

Our main focus in the book is on the how to’s that are the basis of successfully collaborating when you’re a leader. We also thought it was important to flag how collaborations can go wrong and what you can do either to avoid such situations or to deal with them if they happen.

How have your experiences in psychotherapy influenced your approach to leadership?

Probably the most important way is in recognising that each of us is made up of different elements. We may have an identity which we are familiar with but actually at different times different bits of us have different needs, and sometimes these can be in conflict.

Sometimes you can hear it in the language people use; I want to work through the night to complete this but there is a part of me that just wants to chill out. People often have difficulty reconciling such different impulses. The more internally conflicted a person is the harder it is for them to behave consistently. This will be true for every leader. And so, one of the most useful things leaders can do is deal with any internal dissonance so that they are not at war with themselves. There are some easy ways to begin to integrate the different aspects of your psyche. Some have psychotherapeutic origins and are easily applicable without resorting to psychotherapy.

What is a common leadership mistake you see in organisations?

Probably the most common mistake I see is leaders trying to address profound issues using the wrong tools for the job. Let me give you an example. So often I hear leaders saying “we need to win hearts and minds” but there are really very few organisations that understand how to do this. To win hearts and minds, you need to work with people’s beliefs and values. To do that, you need to know how to find out what these are. This is a skill. Like any skill, it is learnable.

Too often, though, leaders seek to impose change at a behavioural level without first understanding what needs to be in place for that change to really take route. Here’s the crucial point, beliefs and values drive behavior. Or to put it another way, human behaviour is always a means to an end. We engage in our behaviour to try to achieve something that matters to us. The question leaders need to ask themselves is not just what are people doing but what are they trying to achieve by doing it?

So often this is the question that hasn’t really been addressed. And then people wonder why the shiny new change program isn’t working!

What is the secret to leading a team to success?

It's pretty simple, really. First, you and everyone in the team needs to know what counts as success; second, everybody needs to care; third, you need to have a way of ensuring that everyone can tell whether they are on track or not; fourth, people need to be able to self-correct; and finally, between them they need to have the skill set to do what is necessary to accomplish the goal. It is the job of the leader to ensure that these conditions are met.

How do you find the balance between having fun as a team and still getting the job done?

You can only really do this if you understand that balance is a dynamic and not a static phenomenon. Suppose you’re riding a bike; you are continually rebalancing moment by moment to avoid falling off. You achieve balance through endlessly correcting imbalances. Balance is not a static end goal to be achieved but an ongoing and dynamic self-correcting activity. The same applies to life and work. When it comes to having fun and getting the job done, there may be times when its non-stop work and other times when its non-stop fun. It’s not that every moment or every day needs to be balanced, but that when you take an arc of time, within that arc there is an overall balance. This would be good for both teams, individuals and leaders to remember.

You say that ‘the foundation of collaborative leadership is self-collaboration’. Can you explain what is meant by self-collaboration?

Suppose you mess up. Most of us do fairly often. How do you deal with yourself? In my experience most people tend to give themselves a hard time and the way they do it is often quite abusive. Now, imagine that a friend of yours had made a similar mistake. Would you really talk to them the way you talk to yourself? For most people, the answer is no. So, in a strange way, we tend to be more understanding and more useful to other people who are having a tough time that we are to ourselves.

One of the things which can make a huge difference to how effective we can be is our ability to work not just with other people but with ourselves. That’s what self-collaboration is all about; knowing your strengths is just as important as knowing your weaknesses. Being able to get on with yourself matters just as much as being able to get on with other people. The more you learn to collaborate with yourself, the better able you will be at collaborating with others.

Finally, is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?

Fostering collaboration is important because it's how we can accomplish more than any one individual ever could. So often leaders fall into the trap of becoming their own bottle neck because they take on too much. Collaboration also grows us by exposing us to more than just our own way of thinking and working. Any leader who enables people to be more together than they are separately is going to increase productivity, team morale, an overall sense of accomplishment – oh, and raise profits!

So there’s a lot to be said for leaders at every level learning how to do this. But the benefits don’t just apply at work: collaborative families are quite different from dysfunctional ones. Collaborative relationships make possible a different kind of romance and intimacy. For all these reasons this project has been particularly close to my heart.

So it could be a smart move to start noticing where cooperation and collaboration are actually already happening in your world. My hunch is, you’ll probably find a lot more examples than you might at first imagine. And the question I want to leave you with is, would it be useful then to learn how to build your collaboration muscle?

Ian's book The Collaborative Leader is available to order now on Amazon. Or if you'd like to connect with Ian, you can find him on Linkedin or email him at