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4 ways EMS leaders can better collaborate

Collaborative leaders use “persuasion, technical competence, relationship skills and political smarts” to get to the desired goal


REMSA community paramedics Ryan Ramsdell, Katrina Travis, and Jake Beck.

Image Keith Griffiths/REMSA

By Keith Griffiths

When more than 200 people from eight countries gathered earlier this month in Reno, Nev. to share best practices related to their community paramedic and mobile integrated health care programs, they took away many lessons.

After three days of presentations at the 10th annual meeting of the International Roundtable on Community Paramedicine, hosted by Reno’s Regional EMS Authority (REMSA), there was a general sense that this whole movement was at a tipping point and that a common set of outcome measures was critical as it evolved to the next level.

One idea in particular permeated the conference. Mentioned over and over again — using different words to the same effect — was the critical importance of collaboration to be successful, and the earlier collaboration happens in the process, the better.

This was evident during a session by Brenda Staffan, the project director for Reno’s Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Health Care Innovation Award grant, which funded REMSA’s community health program. For the first time, she was able to release preliminary outcome data, which had been developed to meet CMS specifications. From just about every perspective, Reno’s results, available in her powerpoint presention, were terrific — which bodes well for the potential to transform policy.

What is collaboration?

In programs like community paramedicine and mobile integrated health, building trust and creating true collaboration with other stakeholders is essential to success, as presenter after presenter made clear.

But just what does “collaboration” mean, and just how do you make it happen?

It’s a lot more than just trying to get buy-in. Especially since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the lack of collaboration was so evident between public safety agencies, this topic has gained much currency, with federal agencies even requiring examples of collaboration as a requirement when awarding grants.

Embracing collaboration means more than inviting representatives from different agencies into a room to talk. It’s more than saying you value and seek the input of others. You must back up those words with action — and a commitment to do the hard work to create true collaboration.

Compelling, charismatic, individualistic, take-charge leaders are often chronicled in the press (and through their autobiographies) as the model of modern success. But those characteristics aren’t necessarily the ones needed to further collaboration. You seldom hear about the most successful collaborative leaders, because they typically don’t draw attention to themselves as much as their work.

In his essay “The Discipline of Collaboration,” Russ Linden, a management consultant, educator and writer, describes collaborative leadership as the art of pulling people together from disciplines or organizations to accomplish a task that none of them could accomplish — at all or as well — individually. Having no formal authority over their peers, he says, collaborative leaders use “persuasion, technical competence, relationship skills and political smarts” to get to the desired goal.

Such leaders don’t get headlines, but they do get results.

“It’s an unusual person,” writes Linden, “who can get and keep the parties working well together, move the ball down the field and tend to the relationships involved as well as the business needs of the partner groups.”

He notes that effective collaborative leaders tend to be technically competent in an area related to the task, are typically comfortable with risk and accept responsibility when the risk doesn’t pan out, know how to deal with changing, chaotic environments, and tend to be future oriented — they don’t let past problems or hurdles slow them down.

“They usually have good political skills in the sense of understanding where the power is in the core group, who the potential rivals are, and what might keep some senior leaders from supporting the initiative,” Linden writes. “They have a keen sense of timing and know how to capture the voice of the project’s key stakeholders. And they almost always have good interpersonal skills, the most important of which (in partnerships) is careful listening.”

4 traits of collaborative leaders

According to Linden, four key qualities distinguish effective collaborative leaders.

1. High energy

Collaborative leaders “have boundless energy, refuse to be deterred, yet keep their egos in check [which] ensures that there’s plenty of space for others in the core group to make a contribution.”

2. Passion

“They are passionate about achieving the desired outcome … and seek other talented people who have creative ideas to contribute. Because the passion is about the outcome and not about their résumé, they tend to build trust and goodwill.”

3. Non-authoritative motivation

Collaborative leaders pull others rather than push them. “By definition, these leaders have no formal authority over their peers. They must find nondirective ways to move people in a positive direction.”

To do so, they “tap some inner need or value in others, and show how to meet that need through collaboration.” Essentially, they pull talented people into a partnership through “creative ideas, a compelling purpose, impassioned champions who are willing to take risks to move the project along, and the chance to work with other great people.”

4. Ability to make connections

Finally, collaborative leaders think systemically. “They see the interconnections in complex systems and are comfortable working interdependently.

“Effective collaborative leaders understand their partners’ organizations, the dynamics between them, their customers, the technology involved, and how it may change. Like world-class chess players, they know how to think several moves ahead and factor in what other players may do.”

There was much evidence of true collaborative leadership at the IRCP in Reno.

Keith Griffiths is a writer and consultant in communications and outreach for public safety and health.