I recently flew to New Orleans, LA to give a talk about the value of collaboration to a group of financial executives. As the taxi drove me from the airport, past the Mercedes Benz Superdome, and onto my hotel in the French Quarter, I couldn’t help but to think of the images I saw and stories I read shortly after hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005. Although many residents have moved to other states and much has changed about the NOLA community, I found the renewed sense of belonging there very heartwarming.

I spent a few hours walking around the French Quarter, saw Bourbon Street, and stopped at Café du Monde for beignets and café au lait. It was a rainy Sunday afternoon and what fascinated me was that the vast majority of the locals were wearing New Orleans Saints jerseys. Each restaurant or store I peeked my head in, someone wearing a fleur-de-lis or black and gold greeted me with a smile. Many offered me an umbrella with the caveat that I promised to leave the umbrella at another establishment for future patrons. The stores shared the umbrellas… dare I say collaborated… with the specific intent on making a patron’s French Quarter experience the best it could be.

Shortly after taking the stage Monday morning, I asked the audience to get in groups of 4 – 5 and uncover characteristics group members had in common. In one group, each member was born before 1980. In another, each had the CPA designation. In another, each had more than two children. Yet another, each were active volunteers generating value for his or her community. As I reviewed the lists created, I found that each group had more than ten items listed. And, many of the items on one group’s list mirrored the items on a different group’s list. Although western societies spend much time calling out human differences, my ten-minute exercise showed that we have much more in common than we openly discuss. Greek philosopher Plato did say, “Friends have all things in common.”

Although competition has been engrained as a way of life… think capitalism v. communism, one sports team v. another, republican v. democrat, the 1% v. the 99%… there is a more meaningful way to accomplish your life’s goals. Collaboration. Here are five ways you can promote collaboration and drive collective impact:

  • Learn something personal about others – the more you learn about people in your stakeholder network and then find commonalities between their experiences and yours, the more mutually beneficial the relationship becomes. Edelman, a global public relations firm, conducted their annual Trust Barometer and found that 61% of survey respondents prefer to spend time with a person “like themselves”.
  • Generate thick value – if you want people to like or trust you quickly, you can generate value for them in one of two ways. One, you can send generic notes, buy standard gifts, or put little thought into the gift. Or, you can learn what the person likes, what motivates him, or what his dreams may be. With that information, you generate thick, meaningful value by customizing and tailoring your comments, actions, and gifts.
  • Build teams with different individual strengths – creating a team where each member brings unique perspectives, experiences, competencies, communication styles, motivations, vision for the future, etc. will set a solid foundation for success. The collective impact that this team can drive will be far more than any one team member can do on his or her own. Surround yourself with wildly intelligent people in the areas that complement (not supplement) your expertise.
  • Reward teamwork – humans are motivated by a wide variety of things. Be sure to find out what motivates key people around you. Some may be motivated by extrinsic rewards (money, recognition, awards, etc.) and others by intrinsic rewards (autonomy in daily tasks, ability to be great at something, living a life with purpose, etc.). By communicating well verbally and nonverbally, you can uncover others’ motivations and establish methods to reward people for behavior that benefits the collective whole first and helps the individual achieve success second.
  • Share subject matter expertise – through the web, the world’s knowledge is available to us virtually free of cost. Attempting to charge large sums of money for or restricting access to your subject matter expertise may not be the best business model. Defining ways your ideas can be disseminated openly or creating unique experiences for your network is very valuable. Remember, visibility in a variety of channels leads to credibility in your personal brand, which leads to trust in your character and competence.

As you develop ways to better collaborate with your work team or with your network to find your next client or job, consider the above five practices. Success in collaboration, when the rubber hits the road, is about human identity. The more you learn about a person, the more you do things that are meaningful to that person, the more you recognize individual strengths, and the more you reward them for teamwork… the more the person will trust you. When someone trusts you, he is much more likely to put in the extra effort to help you achieve the organization’s and your goals.

In NOLA, human identity and being a member of the post-Katrina community found a home in the football Saints. Whether a fan or not, residents and store owners openly displayed their commonalities, collaborated to provide value for visiting patrons, and created a distinct and meaningful community.

Reflect on your life. What can you do to grow your identity, connect it with a larger purpose driven by collaboration, and drive meaningful societal change?