You'll Need These 4 Leadership Skills to Pilot Your Ecosystem (Part 3)
In this everchanging and unpredictable business context, an ecosystem of partners is likely how organisations are going to thrive in the future. To proactively lead such an ecosystem, you’ll need to be equipped with new skills and capabilities.
We’ve talked about what and why ecosystem strategies are important to your organisation in Part 1 of this series and shared with you 6 steps to kickstart your own. In Part 2, we talked about the 4 new mindsets you’ll need to adopt to lead an ecosystem successfully. In this third and final article on ecosystem leadership, we will be focusing on 4 key ecosystem leadership skills.
Traditionally, leadership is usually associated with power over people, as opposed to power with people. This is usually achieved by formal command-and-control structures. But for ecosystem leaders, who engage most with people they don’t employ, it’s not going to work.
Aspiring ecosystem leaders have much to learn from Mary Parker Follett, the early twentieth-century social worker and management guru. For her, management is the art of getting things done through people. She believed in the power of people working together as a community.
To lead an ecosystem well demands a kind of leadership that looks at people first as partners. It demands collaborative leadership: a combination of the ability to work together, to listen, to influence, and to adapt flexibly rather than depending on commands and controls.
If you want to successfully lead your ecosystem, you will need these 4 key skills of a collaborative leader: Listening, Adapting, Influencing and Collaborating.
1. Listening or the capacity to listen, both to those within your own organisation and to weak external signals and messages from partners
Ecosystem leaders need to be aware of what is going on across the network, especially at the edges of the network. They also need to take time to understand their partners, respond quickly to their needs and strengthen their resolve when faced with uncertainty. Listening is key to both of these.
To know the ecosystem well, you’ll need to take time to actively listen to different team members. To listen and work well with your partner CEOs, you need to have a willingness to learn, and the confidence to accept that what others say may sometimes be more valuable than your own.
2. Adapting or encouraging and nudging the ecosystem to respond flexibly to uncertainty
As mentioned in the previous article, ecosystems are built in response to the increased risk and uncertainty of doing business. Thus, to lead an ecosystem, you need the ability to adapt rapidly to change. You’ll also need to encourage your team and partners to learn how to respond flexibly; and allow for self-organisation rather than demanding an adherence to established processes. Flexibility to respond, after all, is a key strength of an ecosystem.
3. Influencing or deploying your soft power that comes from vision, credibility and respect and evidence to bolster your case with partners
Partners want to be convinced about what to do, not told what to do. You’ll need to excel at influencing people not manipulating them, and deploying the “soft power” that comes from vision and credibility. To be an ecosystem leader, you’ll need to treat your partners as equals.
4. Collaboration or getting things done through a community of peers
Lastly, ecosystem leadership is all about getting things done with a community of peers. So, ecosystem builders must put in place structures and incentives to encourage close partnership. This means that as an ecosystem leader, you’ll need to put in significant amounts of time to networking and promoting collaboration between your partners and create a virtual cycle of engagement.
Collaboration isn’t always natural for leaders, so learning to consistently bring people together is a skill you’ll need.
Going Beyond Collaborative Leadership
Listening, adapting, influencing and collaborating are key leadership skills needed in ecosystems. But they have their limitations, and as an ecosystem leader, you’ll need to go beyond these skills.
You’ll need to take responsibility beyond borders because as an ecosystem leader, you are responsible for how your partners behave and communicate, not just your own employees. You will also need to go beyond listening and influencing to building consensus in a way that harnesses diversity and enhances creativity and innovation. As a leader, it will also be crucial to develop your social networks in order to grow the ecosystem pie, become a trusted partner, and grab hold of new opportunities. Lastly, you are going to need to be comfortable with confronting dilemmas, because ecosystems are full of them: wanting to create value for yourself versus sharing the value with partners, developing an overarching vision for the ecosystem versus respecting the identity of each partner etc.
All these mindsets, skills and capabilities add up to a very different leadership approach than what most business leaders are used to. You don’t have to have all of them, but you’ll need to be smart about which capabilities you can learn, and which you’ll need to hire someone to lead with you.
It isn’t easy to lead an ecosystem – but that is why you need to be fully convinced and convicted that capturing the ecosystem edge is the best way to build success for you and your partners. Ecosystems are the future of business, and you are likely already part of a number of ecosystems. The question is: are you ready to lead one?
This article is adapted from ‘Ecosystem Edge’ by Arnoud De Meyer & Peter J. Williamson. Some of these ideas were sharpened in discussion with Singapore Business Leaders Programme participants from 2011 – 2017. To have a deeper understanding of ecosystem strategies and how to implement them, watch our Trailblazer series here.
 De Meyer, A., & Williamson, P. J. (2020). Addressing the Disruption Imperative. In Ecosystem Edge: Leading an Ecosystem (pp. 151). Stanford, CA: Stanford Business Books, an imprint of Stanford University Press., citing L.D. Parker, “Control in Organizational Life: The Contribution of Mary Parker Follett.” Academy of Management Review 9, no. 4 91984): 736–45
 Arnoud De Meyer, “Collaborative Leadership: A New Perspective for Leadership Development,” in The Future of Leadership Development, ed., Jordi Canals (Basingstoke, UL: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)