We’re focused on helping our clients come together, think better, and move forward. But that help is far from one-way: every day we learn quite a bit from our clients. To showcase that, we’re running a series of posts on this blog highlighting the work of some of our clients and what they’ve learned about collaboration. We start by talking with Gene Rubenstein, a senior vice president at Fidelity Investments.

Gene, tell us something about collaboration that most people don’t know.

One of the misconceptions about collaboration is that it’s all about getting along with each other or agreeing with each other. The most successful collaborations I’ve been part of are ones that take in different perspectives. In some cases, the people with different perspectives may have a genuinely antagonistic relationship with one another. It happens. You’ve got to stay civil and try to find the best of both perspectives. To do that, both parties have to be open to listening. That can be hard.

Sometimes people confuse collaboration with cooperation. When someone says someone else is not collaborative, he often means “the person is not doing what I asked him to do.” That’s not necessarily the way things work.

Collaboration isn’t necessarily buy-in, either. It doesn’t work if you get in there and you just facilitate people to do something they don’t believe. It’s much better if you can lead them down a path and end up with a common understanding and maybe even a common outlook on things. But people will have different opinions on how to get to that common understanding. Sometimes we have meetings where there are multiple people who are trying to run the collaboration, even if you have assigned somebody to run it. That can be just as challenging as if you don’t buy into the process. You end up with conflict about the process. You never even get to the topic, because people don’t agree with the process you’re going through.

You’ve been at Fidelity a long time. How do you think differently about collaboration than you did when you arrived?

When I started here, I thought much more in terms of my business silo. For the first seven or eight years I worked here, I didn’t know many people outside of my business line. But as I started working on broader initiatives across the company, I learned that there was a natural tendency to default to your own group’s perspective. But I think differently about it now. When I think about these projects, I don’t think about trying to get the answer for my team. I try and think about the answer for Fidelity.

Sometimes you do have to step in when collaboration isn’t happening. I like to let things run, but at a certain point you have to call time out and say, “we’ve talked about this enough. We’ve already discussed this to death, and we’ve already made a decision.” Sometimes we revisit decisions that we’ve made, not because new information came in, but because no one really agreed with the decision that was made. I think, as a leader, you have to put a stop to that.

It’s really important that somebody says, “Here’s where we’re going to be collaborative and this is how we’re going to move on from that.” Otherwise things can degenerate quickly.

We’re really clear about not trying to draw bright lines around whose responsibility is what, because I think that kind of territorial approach makes projects much harder than they need to be. You’ve got to be open to working with somebody else and listening.

Sometimes you have to recognize that you don’t know what the issues are. It’s not that anyone’s trying to do anything wrong. It’s just that they all are trying to do the right thing, but they’re not all sharing their motives with each other.

What sort of initiatives make more sense to take a collaborative approach and are there those for which you should just sit at your desk and get it done?

In general, if you have the right people, I’d always rather have a collaborative approach.