How can today’s large, diversified organisations convince their top leadership talent to work together to achieve the organisation’s objectives? Finding a balance between the dogged individualism that typically characterises leaders and the kind of shared vision that big businesses rely on to meet their targets is not easy, but it is possible.

The key is to harness leaders’ individual ambitions while at the same time encouraging them to work together as part of a top leadership team. This kind of competitive but collaborative leadership is termed collective ambition. Na Boon Chong, senior partner at Aon Hewitt Southeast Asia, uses the analogy of birds in flight to explain how it works.

You see geese flying in formation,” he says. “Geese are very harmonious creatures, but you don’t see eagles flying in formation. Eagles are very individualistic, very strong, but if you can get very strong individuals to fly in formation, that’s what collective ambition is about.”

Typical leaders are by definition ambitious and individualistic, competitive and driven. That is not a barrier to developing collective ambition, says Boon. In fact, it’s a prerequisite.

“You’ve got to have very strong individuals in the team,” he explains. “So it doesn’t take away from individual excellence in the team. But then the challenge will be, how do you bind these excellent individuals together to work as a team?”

Boon suggests four key ways organisations can do this, based on the findings of Aon Hewitt’s new People Fuel Growth study of collective ambition in Fortune 1000 companies. First, regularly review the organisation’s strategy and growth plan with its leaders. This is often a weakness of Asian family-owned businesses, which tend to keep strategy planning to family members and exclude managers hired from the outside. Those organisations should bear in mind the practices of giant conglomerate General Electric, which reviews its business plan on a monthly basis.

Second, leaders should be bound together by an additional set of performance metrics and incentives based on collective goals that are above and beyond those governing their individual business lines, such as financial metrics with a long-term horizon of at least three years. Creating these kinds of explicit incentives is something Asian family-owned companies can learn from Western multinationals, adds Boon.

Third, build a culture that reinforces common values and desired behaviours, such as doing the right things for the group-wide business. Asian organisations often do this very well, says Boon, because they tend to hire people who fit into their existing corporate culture: “people who are loyal, people who conform to the culture.”

Finally, focus on finding individual excellence. It’s important to select and develop leaders of substance, says Boon. Trying to build collective ambition across a group of people who are not very competent is not going to help the organisation achieve its collective goals. But, “if you have a very competent group of people and you bind them together with collective ambition, then you can achieve great things.”

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