The art of engaging – essentials skills for partnering

By Petra Kuenkel, Founder and Director, Collective Leadership Institute

What does effective water resource management in the Congo basin have in common with ensuring living wages in Bangladesh?

Both can only be achieved when a variety of very different actors get engaged in a collaborative effort: no single set of actors alone can make a difference.

Effective water resource management requires not only coordination between different public sector entities, but also productive cooperation between public sector, private sector and civil society actors, and collaboration across borders.

The absence of living wages in some Asian countries is not a local phenomenon, but the result of a wide range of global factors that cannot be influenced by factories in Bangladesh alone. Shifting the system so that it empowers textile workers to receive wages that are sufficient to feed their families requires an approach that cannot afford to leave out any of the actors throughout the entire value chain: workers, factory owners, buyers, retailers, consumers, governments, and NGOs. Such cross-sector initiatives and complex partnering projects have become key elements for global and local change toward more sustainable development. The proof of these sustainability endeavours is in the achievement of tangible (and measurable) results that often require the commitment, collaboration and skills of various actors.

Learning to engage

Overcoming the challenges that lie ahead of us requires building teams within organisation or across several institutions. We need to integrate different organisational cultures into joint initiatives and foster collaboration between actors that are often not even used to communicating with each other. But even the best of all solutions are futile if not enough people take them up. Considering the need for collective intelligence and the fact that change comes about fastest in a web of relationships between people who are committed to making a difference, leadership for sustainability requires us to develop our capacity to engage. People who have been part of creating solutions will be active drivers in implementation.

Creating a context for commitment

People engage when they resonate with the content and goal of a sustainability endeavour. But the context of most change initiatives for sustainability is much more complex: there can be contradicting agendas of stakeholders, conflicting interests or actors who are overwhelmed by other commitments. The willingness to engage in a collaborative effort is enhanced by an initiating team, if they take care of the following factors:

  • Keeping the relevance of the endeavor for all actors involved in focus
  • Staying clear, transparent and reliable regarding the partnering process
  • Ensuring that events are embedded in good process design
  • Focusing on results that can be perceived as jointly achieved
  • Developing joint goals that are aspirational and tap into people’s desire to make difference

Building commitment, fostering engagement, creating tangible results and enhancing collective responsibility for change will continue to become our daily business. Effective water resource management in the Congo basin and ensuring living wages in Bangladesh are both extremely complex issues. Both can be done, if people are dedicated to gradually building circles of engagement.

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