Michaela Reaney on the flourishing art of collaboration

Michaela Reaney (Gradvert)

Created by Michaela Reaney (Gradvert), 9 months ago, [last edited 9 months ago]

Michaela Reaney on the flourishing art of collaboration

Michaela Reaney, founder and MD of fast-growing people development firm, Gradvert, is the latest female business leader featured in our #womenwhoscale series.

Having forged a career working internationally in recruitment and training, and now running her own high-growth people development business, Michaela enrolled Gradvert onto the Scaleup North East programme to help realise the next phase in her company’s growth and to further Gradvert’s mission to improve business performance by improving people.

Here, she talks to us about the importance of collaboration, a defining aspect of Gradvert’s cultural and commercial approach to business.

What does collaboration mean to you and what does it look like at Gradvert?

Collaboration can be a really powerful way to build a business. At Gradvert, it makes us much more focused on our strategy, because we actively look for opportunities to collaborate to achieve our stated business development goals.

Being an SME means we can be agile, forging collaborations with teams from different sectors, so that we can get to market quicker. In practice, that means pooling talents, resources, and energy with other organisations who are aligned with our objectives and goals. For example, we’re currently involved in a project that’s bringing together people from 30-40 legal organisations looking to develop digital skills.

There is also an element of altruism to collaboration that is fast becoming the norm. Often, it’s about working collectively to make an impact at a broader level in society or the business community. We see that linear lines of competition between organisations are being replaced, or at least supplemented, by collaborative working. A great example is Dynamo here in the North East, which is focused on developing skills in our tech sector by bringing together corporates, SMEs and start-ups under an umbrella purpose. Work like that has far-reaching social and economic consequences that we all benefit from, so Gradvert is a keen participant.

What are the risks to collaboration and how can they be mitigated?

Collaboration is less effective when the objectives are fuzzy. The challenge is to make sure you have a clear vision and stated goals with each collaborative exercise. It’s easy to sabotage yourself by, for example, investing disproportionately in a project and not getting the support from your co-collaborator.

How can North East businesses be more collaborative?

For our region, collaboration serves as a critical branding exercise: working together we can make more impact, commercially and in terms of our reputation. But individual companies should also exploit the opportunity to reach outside the region and access different markets and networks. That can also be an opportunity to work in partnership with other companies – a case of two or more commercial efforts being better than one.

Is collaboration an innate skill or can it be taught?

It can be developed in people, but it’s not for everyone. There must be an appetite for it within your business and those who want to collaborate need to embed that practice within their company culture.

Spotify and Skyscanner have embarked on a ‘tribes and squads’ model where you have businesses within the business – people from cross-cutting teams working on projects that are about solving problems outside the day-to-day.

Is there a female style of collaboration that you see in industry?

I think women, particularly women in North East businesses, tend to be very supportive of other companies.  There is a natural willingness to help and that’s because we see the benefit of doing it. I find that women are very open to putting aside competition by referring and recommending commercial opportunities outside their own companies.

An OECD PISA global education survey published in November last year shows that girls are better than boys at working together to solve problems, which is interesting as it suggests this is innate. It’s definitely a skill that would be beneficial for more leaders to develop.

What skills and good practices do business leaders need to invest in to encourage effective collaboration?

Companies wanting to explore collaborative working from scratch need to start by opening the conversation internally and giving people permission to think about how they could lead collaborative projects.

The level of focus you ascribe to each collaborative mission depends on the outcomes you want to see. Some companies are going a step further, opening opportunities for collaboration to a much wider stakeholder audience. I was really impressed by the approach Northumbrian Water took to last year’s Innovation Festival, where literally hundreds of ideas to improve young people’s skills development were created through collaboration. 

Communication is so important. Not everyone works in the same way, so you need open, transparent dialogue. If companies are going to truly build buy-in, they must discuss ideas with teams, preferably in a dedicated forum. At Gradvert, we have quarterly away days where we not only talk about potential partnerships, we involve collaborative partners in the meetings so that the collaborations don’t feel separate to our business.

It’s important to document each collaborative mission. It’s one of our core disciplines and it really helps to manage expectations. That said, there are some relationships where you feel a strong element of trust and aren’t compelled to formalise things until the time’s right for commercial exploitation. In that sense, instincts play an important part in the process.

Businesses can sometimes be too geared towards what owner managers are doing, but it’s so important that others are given the chance to lead on topics that matter to them. The benefits include developing capability within teams, the creation of more sustainable projects, led by people who really care about the outcomes. It can even help reduce churn because people are motivated and inspired by their work.

There is a saying that it takes a village to raise a child. I guess in many ways there is no difference between a child and a business. It takes extended help and support to really succeed.

Michaela Reaney (Gradvert)

Created by Michaela Reaney (Gradvert), 9 months ago, [last edited 9 months ago]