Why is Stakeholder Collaboration So Important?

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from “The Art of Leading Collectively” published by Chelsea Green.

By Petra Kuenkel

Sustainability is on the agenda of every nation, every organization, and many citizens today; it is a global movement that cannot be ignored. If we do nothing, unsustainable global trends will impact businesses over the next 20 years, as well as governments and civil society organizations. These trends range from climate change to ecosystem decline, from energy insecurity to water scarcity. They affect resource management, poverty, economic justice, food security, demographic change, population growth and more.

Those who are confronted with sustainability challenges notice another global trend: Solutions cannot be found in isolation. As Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Collaboration among different actors is not only paramount, but it is also the sole route to successfully addressing the challenges we face. In a global survey of more than a thousand CEOs, 84 percent were convinced that the corporate world could have a decisive impact on global sustainability challenges if there was a strong commitment to collaboration across sectors and to collective efforts for transformation. Myriad examples speak for themselves.

Developing a mainstream sustainability standard for worldwide green coffee requires a joint approach among major coffee traders, standard organizations, international NGOs, coffee producers, and governments. Improving the infrastructure in southern Africa—railways, ports, telecommunication, and roads—cannot take place without dialogue and collaboration between public and private actors in many fields. Implementing sustainable water management worldwide requires collective action on the ground—by municipalities, companies, civil society organizations, and communities—and an exchange of best practices across nations, regions, and continents. Moving a nation’s energy supply away from nuclear energy or fossil fuels entails consensus and collective action among many stakeholders inside the country; the surrounding countries may need to be engaged in the vision as well. Regaining a community’s traditional land rights and ensuring sustainable land use necessitates cooperation between public and private stakeholders. Dealing with the consequences of climate change requires the combined efforts of governments, civil society, and the private sector.

If we envision a planet in ecological balance, social justice around the globe, and an economic system that serves humankind while keeping the earth healthy, we must admit that sustainability demands global collaboration. As Eric Lowitt puts it in “The Collaboration Economy”: “We have just begun our journey. Much work remains . . . to create a new era of prosperity that benefits our lives today while enhancing future generations’ ability to meet their needs in perpetuity.”

No matter our own chosen task—managing scarce water resources, adapting to climate change, securing access to adequate nutrition, or creating responsible value chains—the challenges of sustainability are urgent. They require new forms of collaborative inventiveness and, above all, people who are willing to implement change jointly at all levels of society.

This means that we need to acquire new competencies—or revive existing ones—to create change collectively on a broad scale. When speaking about the need to work with multi-stakeholder groups, Unilever CEO Paul Polman admits, “It is an enormous learning curve as no one has been trained for this.” The learning includes developing our human capacity for outcome-oriented dialogue, effective collaboration, and future-oriented collective action across institutional or national boundaries.  Isolated action needs to be replaced by collective leadership—a paradigm shift in how individuals find their leadership roles in the spirit of collaborative co-creation and contribution to the common good.

An African proverb that has been cited many times in the last few years says, “If you want to go fast, travel alone; if you want to go far, travel together.” The route to sustainable development is long and winding.

We can only travel together. It is helpful to have a map to understand the geography, and it is even more helpful to have a compass.

“The Art of Leading Collectively” will help you navigate the collaborative journey. Its goal is to encourage and empower those who have started this journey and those who would like to join.

Large companies may adopt sustainability strategies as a result of public pressure, but they soon realize that the internal structures enabling them to learn faster in collaboration with their stakeholders also accelerate business opportunities. Governments increasingly realize that they cannot prevent connectivity and transparency and that staying in a structured dialogue with their citizens is a more peaceful and prosperous way to move forward. Civil society organizations see their impact increase through collaboration with other sectors. Turning the challenges of complexity, interdependency, and urgency into opportunities requires more than passion, intuition, or excellent plans. We need to learn faster together, collaborate more efficiently, and enhance collective action for more sustainable human behavior—on an everyday basis at the local, national, and global level.

“The Art of Leading Collectively” will take you backstage, behind the scenes of what the world will need more of if we want to co-create a better future: successful collaboration. It is founded on years of work that has shown there is no perfect leader, no perfect project manager who can navigate complex settings collaboratively without the occasional sleepless night. Conflicts, misunderstandings, failures, and hidden agendas are part of the journey. Human beings need to negotiate the road map into the future. There is no other choice. Addressing sustainability challenges requires people in all sectors to work together in more fruitful and constructive ways. No single actor has the best solution for sustainability issues, but each may contribute a piece of the puzzle.

This book will help you implement more outcome-oriented and constructive co-creation on a day-to-day basis—for yourself, your team, your organization, and—above all—your cross-sector collaboration initiative. It equips dedicated change makers in public, private, and civil society organizations with a tool for better co-creation. My experience is that the dimensions of collective leadership for sustainability can be made transparent. They can be learned and enhanced—individually and collectively.

Perhaps you are trying to start a complex cooperation project, or are in the midst of one you’re trying to improve. Or maybe you’re trying to rediscover the world of fruitful human interaction, shift the mind-set of your organization toward collaboration, or find new ways to work out difficult challenges. If so, the tool presented in “The Art of Leading Collectively”—the Collective Leadership Compass—helps you keep your collaboration journey on track and find the necessary course corrections. With it, you can:

  • Prepare for your journey into collaboration from the outset.
  • Locate where you are, defining what is present and what’s missing.
  • Map the path, adjust your strategies, and know what to shift, to strengthen, or to focus on.
  • Convince your colleagues that leading collectively for sustainability can change the world.

Your collaboration journey starts with the first step—understanding your own contribution to better co-creation. You are the fractal that can make a difference in the world, the member of a group of thoughtful citizens that can change the world. You are a leader when you begin to engage with the future, when you draw people into collaboration, when you commit yourself to a larger goal. You are not alone on the journey; you are part of a community for change.

Better co-creation is all about us human beings—you and me, and the many others out there, all around the world. The challenges are as manifold as there are opportunities for dedicated people to make a difference.

Petra Kuenkel is the author of “The Art of Leading Collectively” published by Chelsea Green.