As today’s business challenges span across boundaries, so too must leadership.

Today, the leadership advantage goes to the people who are most closely linked to others and can work with a great variety of people from differing positions, backgrounds and locations.

“The ever-increasing complexity of today’s world calls for a critical transformation in leadership from managing and protecting boundaries to boundary spanning,” says CCL’s Chris Ernst, co-author with Donna Chrobot-Mason of the new book Boundary Spanning Leadership: Six Practices for Solving Problems, Driving Innovation, and Transforming Organizations.

Out of 128 senior-level executives that participated in one of the studies behind the book, 86 percent stated that it is “extremely important” that they collaborate effectively across boundaries in their current leadership roles. Yet just 7 percent of those executives believed they were “very effective” at doing so — a 79 percent gap.

“We wrote this book to help leaders close this gap by developing the collaborative skills, mindsets and behaviors of boundary spanning leadership,” explains Ernst.

The executives who took part in the survey recognized that the solutions to today’s most pressing business challenges – ranging from the global economic crisis to energy constraints to the drive for innovation — rest at the intersection of vertical, horizontal, stakeholder, demographic and geographic boundaries.

Vertical boundaries are those that cross level, rank, seniority, authority and power. The separation of groups into layers of top, middle and entry-level — each with corresponding levels of authority — is a ubiquitous feature in nearly all organizations.

Vertical boundaries pose the smallest challenge to senior executives, cited in just 7 percent of the challenges. “We believe that in the past, this percentage was significantly higher,” says Ernst. “However, perhaps as a result of decades of de-layering and improved communication systems, these executives perceive vertical boundaries as less relevant than the other four types.”

Horizontal boundaries are the walls that separate groups by areas of experience and expertise. The negative costs of horizontal boundaries are revealed when one function is favored over another, when the work of one unit or product line threatens the viability of another, or when departments work at cross-purposes.

The challenges arising from horizontal boundaries were cited nearly 3-to-1 (71 percent) over those of the other four dimensions. Facilitating lateral, cross-functional collaboration is one of the most common presenting issues. The unintended consequence of today’s matrixed and regional structures is that walls have been erected between groups that need to be collaborating. As a result, “silo busting” has become one of the leading pastimes for managers and executives today.

Stakeholder boundaries are varied and many, as organizations respond to shareholders, boards of directors, partners, alliances, suppliers, vendors, customers, advocacy groups, governments, nongovernmental agencies, and local and global communities.

Demographic boundaries are found in the space between diverse groups, including the entire range of human diversity from gender and race to education and ideology.

Geographic boundaries are represented by distance, locations, cultures, regions and markets. Boundaries of geography create constraints when there is a need for collaboration across different locations.

Geographic (26 percent), demographic (17 percent), and stakeholder (17 percent) boundaries were identified as challenges with relatively similar frequency. “In contrast to vertical boundaries, our expectation is that these percentages will rise dramatically in the years ahead,” says Ernst.

For most of us, it is not easy to lead outside our box in the organizational chart, across the lines of stakeholder interests, beyond the borders of the division or groups we represent. Nevertheless, it can be done, according to Ernst and Chrobot-Mason.

Boundary spanning leadership begins with managing boundaries, then expands to forging common ground and, finally, to discovering new frontiers. Using six boundary spanning practices – buffering, reflecting, connecting, mobilizing, weaving and transforming — leaders can solve problems, create innovative solutions and transform their organizations.

“From rural towns in the southeastern United States to the chaotic streets of Jordan, we have had the privilege to examine how boundary spanning leaders are transforming borders that divide into boundless possibilities and alternative futures,” says Ernst. “We invite you, too, to put these practices to work and experience benefits above and beyond what you can achieve on your own.”

Boundary Spanning Benefits

Leaders who effectively reach beyond present boundaries have the advantage when faced with solving problems, creating innovative solutions and evolving to thrive in today’s interdependent, complex world. The benefits of boundary spanning leadership include:

  • Increased organizational agility to respond to a dynamic marketplace
  • Advanced cross-organizational innovation processes
  • Achievement of mission-critical bottom-line results
  • An engaged and empowered workplace at all levels
  • Flexible, cross-functional learning capabilities to solve problems and adapt to change
  • Better-managed risks and rewards through enduring cross-sector partnerships
  • Higher-performing virtual teams
  • Global mindsets and cross-regional collaboration

Boundary Spanning LeadershipWant to be a Boundary Spanning Leader? The new book by Chris Ernst and Donna Chrobot-Mason, Boundary Spanning Leadership: Six Practices for Solving Problems, Driving Innovation, and Transforming Organizations, is now available.

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