I’ve written in this column previously about my strong belief – backed by research from Maximus and others – that Australian business leaders must fundamentally shift their thinking in order to foster and grow innovation. We are lagging.

Australia’s OECD ranking for the essential triangulation between industry, government and research institutions is woeful. Given our high levels of education and widespread prosperity, Australia has the right conditions to be a catalyst for innovation.

The right mindset is just as key as the right conditions, and an essential part of that is leaders working to build a culture of dynamic partnering and collaboration in their organisations.

You could ask: is it a symptom or cause? Is it because we don’t have a high level of innovation happening in Australia that we don’t have a high level of partnering and collaboration occurring here either? I don’t have an answer to that, but I have done some thinking on the way we grow up inside organisations.

Less boundary driven and more open

Traditionally, we learn to be individually accountable within the set boundaries for our level as we climb the corporate ladder. As you get to the top layers of an organisation, you need to be much less boundary driven and more open, but few leaders have been trained for that transition.

I work with a lot of general manager and director-level leaders, and I often see them trying to solve for their organisation’s opportunities and issues from inside the company.

In my view, partnering and collaboration across organisations has always been a beneficial approach, but today it’s absolutely essential. You have to look up and out and ask: who’s best at this particular process or operation, how are they doing it, who do they partner with, and how do I learn from this? Also, which firms are doing things differently and what could I learn from working with them – you really have to work to open up.

Perhaps because of a tradition of jealously guarding their company’s intellectual property, few leaders of big organisations are naturally adept at seeking out different perspectives on opportunities and problems.

Smaller companies and start-ups do it better because they have to partner to survive, and there are no barriers to them doing that. For example, if they decide they need superior customer insights, there’s no way they have the capacity to put that function on in-house.

Without even thinking about it too deeply, they look outside for who’s doing it well and partner with them, quickly and efficiently. Often in big enterprise, the default is to build more capability in-house, and that’s what we’ve got to think differently about.

Having a long term perspective

We are working at such a frenetic pace that leaders find it hard to make time to stop and think. We do a lot of work with leaders about doing that, and what to think about in that time — and this is definitely one of those things.

It’s vital to have a long-term perspective on the way you view and interact with partners, suppliers, competitors, institutions and customers. You need to understand that building that network of connections is a 10–20-year exercise, and even after that period it should be continuous.

I see it as incremental deposits into a knowledge bank, which you need to codify, understand and keep up to date, rather than getting to a point in your career where you have to go out to market and get across who’s who in a particular area urgently because of a problem or new opportunity. You can imagine how incredibly valuable that well-tended knowledge bank is then.

What it’s not about is collecting business cards or leaning on Linkedin in a rush. It’s about being endlessly curious and working to understand the capabilities in your network: who’s amazing at innovative thinking, who’s doing clever things around customer insights, what research is going on that’s related to my industry and who’s doing it and how can I tap into it?

You have to keep the ambition and energy behind building a broader network through your whole career, and it will pay dividends, for you, your organisation, and the ecosystem of potential partners you’re building around you.