(When You’re Used to Going It Alone)
Collaboration is an incredibly valuable skill in today’s marketplace, and what’s more, women are naturals at it. But if you’ve always been the “lone (she) wolf” type, you may not know how to get started. Dr. Nancy D. O’Reilly offers 10 tactics to kick-start your collaborating career.

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Fifteen years into the new millennium, we’ve all heard (and heard some more) that the ability to collaborate is a crucial skill in the global economy. And it’s not hard to see why. The problems faced by today’s organizations have gotten so incredibly complex that a diverse range of skill sets is needed to solve them. After all, no one can possibly be good at everything. No two people will ever arrive at exactly the same solution. And of course, there’s an amazing synergy that arises when we join forces with others.

And here’s the coup de grâce, says clinical psychologist Dr. Nancy D. O’Reilly: Women are perfectly poised to catch and ride the collaboration wave to unprecedented heights.

“Women are hardwired to connect, to share ideas, to combine resources, and yes, to change the world,” says O’Reilly, who along with 19 other women, cowrote the new book Leading Women: 20 Influential Women Share Their Secrets to Leadership, Business, and Life. “This ability is the cornerstone of the women-helping-women movement that’s taking shape.

 “Women are at our most powerful when we join forces, so if we don’t do it, we squander our greatest strength. Plus, working together for the greater good feels good!”

So what is collaboration? Basically, it’s what happens when two or more people work together to achieve shared goals and a common purpose. It’s not just dividing work up like the parts of a pie: “You make the crust and I’ll make the filling, and then we’ll put them together.” It’s more like: “Let’s each bring our best ingredients, go into the kitchen together, start chopping and mixing and seasoning, and see what takes shape.”

“Magic happens when we collaborate,” she explains. “We’re influenced by each other’s take on things, and ideas begin to evolve. We draw from each other’s energy. Something entirely new is born, and it’s often far greater than anything one person could have come up with alone.”

One thing’s for sure: Whether you’re a budding entrepreneur seeking to start something new, an employer wanting to expand her company, or an employee hoping to “lean in” further, collaboration is an incredibly valuable skill for staying viable in today’s marketplace.

So if collaboration is as natural as breathing for women, why can’t YOU seem to do it? Maybe you’re steeped in the “rugged individualism” mindset. Maybe you’ve had some bad experiences with “group projects” in the past. Maybe you’ve even bought into the outdated notion that other women are competitors. For whatever reason, you’re just not used to seeking out other women to join forces with—and it’s time for that to change.

Here, O’Reilly shares 10 tactics to help you unlock the “power of sisterhood” by tapping into the women-helping-women movement:

Understand up front that collaboration goes beyond mere “connecting.” Technology may have made it easy to reach out to and network with a large number of people, but collaborating in a strategic way goes far beyond collecting LinkedIn connections, Facebook friends, or Twitter followers. (Not that there is anything wrong with doing these things; actually, social media can be a valuable collaboration tool.) How deep and how broad our reach is, and how well we can partner with other women, determines our success.

Think creatively about who you might collaborate with and why. Sometimes potential collaborations are fairly obvious. For instance, if you have expertise as an interior designer but lack experience with bookkeeping and managing a staff, you might partner with another woman who does have those skills. But other times, fertile collaborations aren’t so obvious. Think outside the box about who might have the same needs and goals as you.

Don’t gravitate toward women who are like you. It’s a natural human tendency to seek out and spend time with people who share our viewpoints, opinions, attitudes, and methods. It feels good when others validate how and what we think. But on the flip side, that’s not how we learn.

Set a collaboration goal. Put some numbers with it or get it on the calendar. Good intentions don’t mean much when it comes to successful collaborating. If you don’t have a finite goal to work toward, it will be all too easy to “think about it tomorrow,” Scarlett O’Hara-style.

“Decide that you’ll connect with X women a month or meet X times a month with a collaboration partner,” O’Reilly suggests. “Insert your own numbers depending on your circumstances, goals, and personality. Quantifying your intentions will force you to be accountable. Otherwise, your desire to collaborate will remain just a vague dream.”

Assume nobody is off-limits. You may assume that “eligible collaborators” have to work in your industry or be within a few rungs of you on the corporate ladder. This is not true. The world is full of all kinds of women, in all different industries, and at all levels of authority with whom you might mesh perfectly. In an ever-flattening world where hierarchies and titles are less important than ever, it doesn’t make sense to categorize potential collaborators this way.

“Don’t let how busy or important another person is hold you back from reaching out,” O’Reilly urges. “If you want to collaborate with a thought leader or C-suite resident, ask. I am usually pleasantly surprised by how willing women are to share ideas, best practices, advice, and support—even with so-called competitors.

When you approach someone, don’t just wing it. Whether your proposed project involves a business venture, a community cause, personal development, or something else, have a few ideas going in. Put together a convincing pitch and be prepared to sell your idea. If your idea is too vague and unformed, what should be a dynamic meeting of the minds can quickly fizzle out or turn into a rambling gab session (which is fun but doesn’t count as collaboration).

On the other hand, don’t be too rigid or dominating. Even if you initiated a particular collaboration, stay open to the other woman’s thoughts and input. Let the interaction unfold organically, even if it veers from the path you’d envisioned. Nothing squashes creativity and innovation faster than a perceived lack of respect for others’ opinions.

“Believe me, I understand how difficult it can be to unclench, take a risk, and let other people have partial control of your ‘baby’s’ destiny,” O’Reilly acknowledges. “It isn’t always comfortable, but setting aside your original vision and staying open to 360-degree feedback is the best way to spot problems, work out kinks, and discover the most innovative ideas.”

Keep ideas doable (and fun). Keep in mind that most potential collaborators are likely to have plenty of preexisting commitments and responsibilities of their own. If you make your idea seem like just another box the other woman will have to check off her to-do list, you’ll be less likely to get her buy-in.

“All I’m saying is, don’t overwhelm the other woman by making your project seem like a ton of work or a huge drain on her time,” O’Reilly comments. “Your ideas need to be realistic and energizing so that she will want to be part of them.

Make sure you’re not just a “taker.” Sure, collaboration is a group effort—but it’s one in which you need to pull your own weight. Even if you’re approaching women with more experience and/or resources, you must bring value to the table. Show that you are prepared for and invested in the project and make it clear that you are willing and ready to work hard.

“The women-helping-women movement isn’t about free lunches; it’s about combining forces,” O’Reilly comments. “Both parties need to benefit. Think long and hard about your knowledge and skills and how they can help your fellow collaborator. Spell this out up front so she won’t think you’re just looking for a free lunch.”

Think long term. If you can’t make a project happen with someone right away, don’t write her off forever. A “no” today might be a “yes” six months or a year down the road. Remember that successful women often have a lot on their plates, so whenever possible, stay flexible with your timeline. The wait will probably be worth it.

“If you get a ‘maybe later’ answer from a potential collaborator, check in every once in a while,” O’Reilly advises. “Be persistent without being annoying, and keep the other woman updated on any new ideas or progress that might affect how you work together.” 

“Over the course of human history, many wise people have observed that we become like the people we spend the most time with,” O’Reilly concludes. “So why not seek out and work with as many smart, talented, passionate women as possible? Together, we have the power to change our lives, our industries, our communities, and our world!”

Nancy D. O’Reilly, PsyD, is an author of Leading Women: 20 Influential Women Share Their Secrets to Leadership, Business, and Life and urges women to connect to help each other create a better world. As a clinical psychologist, motivational speaker, and women empowerment expert, O’Reilly helps women create the satisfying and purposeful lives they want to benefit themselves, their families, and their communities. To accomplish this, she devotes her energies to fulfilling the mission of the Women Connect4Good, Inc., foundation, which benefits from her writing and speaking services. O’Reilly is the founder of Women Connect4Good, Inc., and for seven years she has interviewed inspiring women for online podcasts available on her website.

For more information, please visit www.drnancyoreilly.com and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter .