"Know your enemies, know yourself", advised Sun Zi in his famous Art of War (AoW). In contrast, the legendary Admiral Zheng He would have said, "Know your collaborators, know yourself", and this would be the essence of his Art of Collaboration (AoC).

 – Extracted from the book: Zheng He's Art of Collaboration: Understanding the Legendary Chinese Admiral from a Management Perspective

During a sharing session on Cultural Intelligence by industry gurus, an event organized by the People’s Association of Singapore, Prof Hum Sin Hoon (Deputy Dean do NUS Business School) shared insights to his book and identified the 4 Cs of Collaboration; Capability Building, Coordination, Communication, and Continuity.

The first two (Capability Building and Coordination) form the preparation phase of collaboration. Zheng He took time to build up his technical and human capital resources so that he could collaborate from a position of strength. This also includes getting the full backing of his boss, Emperor Yong Le, who gave him blank scrolls stamped with the imperial scroll so he could issue decrees whilst at sea.

Capability Building also includes getting the right people on board; a top team that shares the vision and the expertise in the organization to ensure you are in a position of strength.

Coordination is about ensuring that your internal resources are working as an integrated whole and are all aligned with your mission. If one department is trying to build a relationship with a party and another department is using the art of war with them, your efforts are going to be wasted.

Communication is positioned as the main act of collaboration and has five key parts:

  • Articulate intent – consciously making your purpose and objectives transparent, including your intent to collaborate, is the foundation for building a partnership.
  • Practice generosity – gift giving paves the way for the relationship and being generous with your time, resources and knowledge is a solid basis for collaboration.
  • Find win-win outcomes – the relationship will not be truly collaborative unless there is a win-win for all parties. Zheng He ensures that the communities he traded with benefited from the relationship with China.
  • Aim for sustainable relationships – evaluate what factors you can control that may damage the relationships you are building.  Take early action to sustain your collaboration if you can.  Of course, some things may be out of your control such as major economic factors, but address the issues that you can control.
  • Cultivate trust – act with integrity and back up your words with your actions. Trust is at the heart of all relationships and it takes time to build and can be damaged easily.  Build a reputation for following through on your commitments and stated intent.

Continuity reinforces the point that collaboration cannot be built overnight.  It takes consistent effort and purpose. Zheng He made 6 voyages almost consecutively because he knew that making one visit was not sufficient to sustain the relationship.  During his seven voyages over 28 years, he visited and revisited 30 cities or countries.

Some of us may have read this and wonder how this book applies to junior to mid-level executives who are building their careers in their respective fields. Some may even argue that this book is more suited to middle-management and beyond.

The thing is, collaboration is never about how senior or junior you are in an organization but about placing the objective first. Once we have a common goal in place, getting the right people on board to do the job in the next important step to achieving that common goal. It will then naturally be followed by good coordination of resources and constant open communication to work through the entire process/project. And in building a sustainable career, building consistent collaboration with others is key, and that provide continuity in your career progression.