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Flat Army

By Dan Pontefract

(Jossey-Bass, 314 pages, $32.95)

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When Dan Pontefract was running career-change programs at the British Columbia Institute of Technology a decade ago, he would surprise the students by taking them ice skating.

Their average age was 32, and they were not given any instruction other than to dress warmly and to keep an open mind. The students varied widely in ability, but usually could be classified into four categories, which he labelled in his mind, as if marking papers, A through D. There usually about three to five skating wizards, 10 to 15 quite good skaters, six to eight who struggled like Bambi on ice, and one to four who had never tried this before, so were even worse.

The activity revealed, first, that the top two cadres of skaters didn't showboat, but instead observed their colleagues and then began to help them; collaboration, without being asked for, was a natural response. By doing that, the hapless skaters saw another dimension of their colleagues and their appreciation grew. At the same time, the skilled skaters often viewed the others in a new, more rounded light.

When Mr. Pontefract spoke to them later, the recurring theme was that you can't judge a book by its cover. "They were no longer worried about egos. They were becoming flat. They no longer cared about A/B or C/D titles – it was about chipping in to get things done. Both groups measured themselves against the other but, in doing so they were sorting out how to demonstrate a better way in which to interact with each other," he writes in Flat Army.

Mr. Pontefract, now head of learning and collaboration at Telus Corp. in Vancouver, believes in flat armies, although the image for him is not of warfare, but of an armada of fishing boats moving together. It's a group of people striving together – leading together – for a common goal.

"Leadership doesn't come from one, it comes from all. That is why the word 'flat' comes in front of army. Flat denotes equality and togetherness," he explains.

Neat concept. But how do you make it work? He throws out a lot of tenets for being a collaborative leader, but the essence is distilled in his "collaborative leader action model." It has six stages, all beginning with the letter C:

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1. Connect

When we hit a snag, our instinct is to solve the problem or complete the task as quickly as possible. He insists this is a mistake. Instead, leaders need to think about who they should connect with first. Who will feel the impact? Who could assist? Who needs to be part of the process or decision? "It's the way in which leaders can immediately break down hierarchies and nurture a collaborative culture across business units and teams," he notes.

2. Consider

Through dialogue, you must consider all the options before deciding what should be accomplished. Team members will appreciate being consulted, and you will develop a better set of options. He stresses that this is not simply about an exchange of words, but a behavioural attitude in which you consider carefully before acting.

3. Communicate

Next you must decide what action to take and then immediately communicate that decision and accompanying information or action plans to the stakeholders. He stresses the flat-army model is not about mutual decision making in some form of total equality; leaders can decide, but they must connect and consider first, collaborating with others, so that staff feel part of the equation. "Employees are not the ultimate decision makers but they need to be part of the process," he notes.

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4. Create

Now it's time to create the result – what is usually called "execute." Avoid micromanaging, but guide others through the demand for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-sensitive goals. Address issues as soon as possible, but remain flexible. "Be there for the team. Chip in and lead by example."

5. Confirm

Ensure that the result is met. It's nice to be collaborative, but it's too easy to accept that the result seems to have been hit, roughly, without checking for sure. "To categorically qualify and quantify that the result is commensurate with defined targets is to act like a true Flat Army leader," he writes.

6. Congratulate

If you have done everything right, people will feel engaged, part of the solution and proud of what they have developed together. But you're not finished: You must provide feedback and recognition, to bring it all together. Sometimes that will involve recognizing mistakes, to take advantage of what Mr. Pontefract's boss, Telus CEO Darren Entwistle, calls "the tuition value of mistakes" so that learning can occur.

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Engagement and collaboration are a key focus these days, and Mr. Pontefract has given it a lot of thought. At times his book can seem overwhelming, with several elaborate, interlinked models for connected leadership. But you will certainly get lots of ideas to apply to your own situation.


In Emotional Vampires at Work (McGraw-Hill, 258 pages, $22.95) clinical psychologist Albert Bernstein offers advice about dealing with bosses and co-workers who drain you.

Consultants Brian Moran and Michael Lennington claim in The 12 Week Year (Wiley, 190 pages, $28.00) that their productivity ideas can help you get more done in 12 weeks than others manage in 12 months.

Consultant William Ferguson shares how 12 titans – from Bill Marriott of Marriott International to Julia Stewart of DineEquity – made it to the top in The Wisdom of Titans (Bibliomotion, 188 pages, $28.50).

Special to The Globe and Mail

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Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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