Collaboration is Key!

Robin A. Comstock

The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.

The dictionary tells us collaboration is (1) the action of working with someone to produce or create something (2) traitorous cooperation with an enemy. In the workplace, both definitions are applicable. Let’s be honest, sometimes both the family kitchen table and the workplace can feel like a war zone. Collaboration raises us above the battlegrounds and territory disputes. It can bring friend and enemies together to share divergent perspectives, to identify a shared sense of purpose and common goals. Most important is that collaboration creates a better and broader success that would be possible by one lone soul.

Collaboration occurs when two or more people or organizations work together to realize or achieve a goal. Teams that work collaboratively can obtain greater resources, recognition for the effort that ultimately results in greater support, and reward when facing competition for success. More important, collaborating is the only way to get a job done, done well, and done better than could be done alone. It allows you to see other realities and different paths that you, your culture and your institution would not allow you to see.

Some of the best experiences that life offers are totally unplanned and unexpected. For example, around twenty-five years ago, I began a career path that would put me in the position of serving the community and its development through the business community, as the CEO of three of our state’s chambers of commerce. Most chambers of commerce are non-profit organizations, which means they cannot receive charitable gifts, grants, or even donations.

This makes a chamber of commerce and the business community very creative and resilient, and most important, it makes the individuals who come from every path in the community, work together. It makes people with an array of experiences and interests come together to view hope through a shared telescope. However, even more important is that collaboration is the foundation of a technique to blend all that we are, and what we know, to create something better than we could do alone through a singular lens and lone capability. It was at the chamber of commerce where I learned about the power, technique, and art of collaboration.

At the core of collaboration is pulling other people to the table, so that each one contributes to the vision and therefore the success. One of my favorite examples of this is when I was at one of my chambers of commerce, at that time, the quality and character of public education was a major issue of concern for the business community. Business leaders wanted kids graduating with more advanced skills and abilities, and they wanted those emphasized as a priority for qualifying students for the workplace.

So not knowing what I didn’t know, I pulled teachers, politicians, civic leaders and members of the arts and cultural community to the table with leaders of the business community. Our mission was to discuss the perception and reality of public education and the skills and knowledge kids were obtaining in school. The room was packed with around 50 attendees at the first meeting. Every segment of the community represented at the meeting had the very real possibility of becoming defensive and angry at the very implications of the subject of the meeting. Over the course of several weeks, together, we each articulated how we saw the problem and we shared our concerns.

As result of this collaborative approach, the unexpected happened. Most often, when a chamber of commerce addresses education issues, it ends up developing a program that puts business people in classrooms. However, because of the collaborative process, the program that was developed flipped that coin and put teachers in business. The program was an unprecedented success that, as a result, established an incredible collaborative relationship between business and schools, so teachers understood what business wants and needs and business understood the challenges teachers and schools face. Both parties brought their unique skills, experiences, and knowledge to the table for the other for the benefit of the community.

If this is a new way of thinking for you, or a new way to view accomplishing lofty goals as a municipality, here are a few things to think about. My short tenure as the Somersworth Economic Development Manager demonstrates to me the essence of caring, smart, creative and driven employees, who create teams, and a staff that is under a tremendous amount of pressure to perform with excellence. A municipal staff has big vision and goals yet is often under-resourced and overworked. Every employee is doing the job of what may be several people in the private sector environment. Success hinges on being able to get the job done in spite of all of the urgent day-to-day demands on the job. These consuming tasks are often requirements of the job as a public servant of the community, but they are not tactics that will take the community into its future. Those actions don’t remedy problems or adjust systems to ensure our communities are innovative while being responsive.

Now, as the Economic Development Manager of the City of Somersworth, I find I am drawing heavily on my experiences of collaboration at the chamber of commerce. I hope my leadership style of being anchored in the spirit of collaboration serves New Hampshire’s smallest City well. Somersworth is filled with committed members of the community. It has an extraordinary array of top-shelf manufactures, exceptional retail options, incredible medical and health network and a blossoming central business district. All of this is nestled along the banks of a beautiful river that separates Maine and New Hampshire by a forty-foot bridge. If all of that weren’t enough, there also is a thriving arts community and strong creative economy coupled with lots of young people, all of which brings a great vibe to the city sidewalks. The civic, public and prIvate sector members of community are smart, creative, innovatove and driven. There is the promise of the future in the air and an understanding that all segments of the community have to be at the table to share perspectives and contribute to the journey.

For example, last fall the City partnered with Plan New Hampshire to explore concepts for the revitalization of a dated strip mall. Representatives of the entire community came together to discuss their vision of the Somersworth in the future. Extraordinary concepts for that vision have been created. The Mayor quickly created a commission of dedicated community leaders, retailers, teachers, business leaders, historians and more, to meet twice a month to develop a roadmap for the vision. The entire process has been cemented in the spirit of collaboration. As a result, every meeting captures attendee’s interest. Concerns and hopes have been brought to the table by each constituent group of the City so that collaboration can occur, and the end result is agreed to and enthusiastically supported by business and residents alike.

Elements and Examples of Successful Collaboration Skills

As a few other great examples of unconventional collaboration that seem to be serving Somersworth well is that the Economic Development Department has created a series of roundtables for enhanced collaboration. For example, the Malley Farm Industrial Park tenants are participating in a new “Tenants Roundtable” hosted on site by a different tenant every quarter, to collaborate on how greater success for each business can be accomplished through discussion and mutual support. A roundtable has also been created to encourage collaboration (and cooperation) between bankers, investors, and brokers, to discuss views on ways in which better cooperation is possible, to accomplish the shared vision for the future. And, a Roundtable has also been established for the downtown community, this collaboration may result in new marketing programs and other cooperative campaigns.

In conclusion, at its very core, collaboration allows an expansion of capacity, it makes the eyes wider and the brain broader, it makes it possible to get more done, it brings a greater success than could otherwise be imagined.

Margaret Meade described collaboration beautifully when she said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Robin A. Comstock is Economic Development Manager for the City of Somersworth. Robin may be reached by phone at 603.692.9516 or by email at