Executives Agree: Boundary Spanning Is Essential

When times are tough, our natural tendency is to hunker down. Battle lines are drawn. Organizational silos get taller. Worldviews shrink, attitudes narrow, and positions tighten.

All too often, boundaries create borders that divide groups into Us and Them. The result can be fractured relationships, diminished resources, suboptimal results, and divisive conflict.

Yet, boundaries are also frontiers — a place of emergent opportunity and new possibility. Wherever group boundaries collide and intersect, there is potential for different ways of working and new forms of collaboration.

Through boundary spanning, leaders can reveal new frontiers for solving pressing problems, driving innovation, and leading change. By definition, boundary spanning is when leaders can work with a great variety of people from differing positions, backgrounds, and locations.

Managers traditionally learn to manage vertically — to work up the organizational chart with senior colleagues and downward with direct reports. But it’s also critical for managers to work horizontally, across functions, locations, and with external stakeholders.

As our world becomes more complex, leaders must transform from managers who understand and protect their boundaries to managers who practice boundary spanning. The leadership advantage goes to people who are able to work with a variety of colleagues from differing positions, backgrounds, and locations.

In a research report, we surveyed 128 senior-level executives who participated in our Leadership at the Peak program. Over 86% stated that it is “extremely important” to collaborate effectively across boundaries in their current leadership roles. However, only 7% of those executives reported feeling “very effective” at boundary spanning — a 79% gap.

Leaders can close this gap by developing the collaborative skills, mindsets, and behaviors of Boundary-Spanning Leadership.

Effective Leaders Collaborate Across 5 Boundary Types

The solutions to today’s most pressing business challenges may rest at the intersection of different boundaries. That’s why boundary spanning leadership involves creating direction, alignment, and commitment across 5 types of boundaries:

  • Horizontal: Expertise, function, peers.
  • Vertical: Rank, class, seniority, authority, power.
  • Stakeholder: Partners, constituencies, value chain, communities.
  • Demographic: Gender, generation, nationality, culture, personality, ideology.
  • Geographic: Location, region, markets, distance.

Infographic: Boundary-Spanning Leadership - Effective Leaders Collaborate Across Horizontal, Vertical, Stakeholder, Demographic, and Geographic Boundaries

Horizontal Boundaries

Horizontal boundaries 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%) over those of the other 4 dimensions. Facilitating cross-functional collaboration is one of the most common issues, and speaks to the challenge of boundary spanning. The unintended consequence of 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.

Vertical Boundaries

Vertical boundaries 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 practicing boundary spanning, cited in just 7% of the challenges.

Stakeholder Boundaries

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

Demographic Boundaries

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

Geographic Boundaries

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.

Boundary Spanning Leadership Practices

In our research, geographic (26%), demographic (17%), and stakeholder (17%) boundaries were identified as challenges with relatively similar frequency. These percentages likely will increase in the future.

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

Boundary spanning leadership begins with managing existing boundaries, then expands to forging common ground, and, finally, moves into discovering new frontiers.

Using 6 boundary spanning practices — buffering, reflecting, connecting, mobilizing, weaving, and transforming — leaders can solve problems, create innovative solutions, and transform their organizations. (Learn more about these 6 practices in Boundary Spanning Leadership: Six Practices for Solving Problems, Driving Innovation, and Transforming Organizations.)

As you embark on boundary spanning, consider these 4 tips:

  1. Start with the end in mind. Consider the nature of your challenge and which boundaries (horizontal, vertical, stakeholder, demographic, geographic) are most prevalent or difficult for you to span.
  2. Clarify the strategy. Do you need to create safety and foster respect? Then your strategy is to manage boundaries through buffering and reflecting. Is your goal to build trust and develop ownership? Turn to the connecting and mobilizing tactics that help forge common ground. If the foundation has been set, then greater interdependence and reinvention — discovering new frontiers — is possible. Explore the weaving and transforming tactics.
  3. Start simply. Begin with a tactic or two that feels easy to introduce and execute. Don’t “launch” a boundary spanning campaign. Begin where you can, find some allies, tap into the power of networks, and build on your successes.
  4. Experiment and modify. Remember that a particular boundary spanning tactic may not always work with your group or situation. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Modify our suggestions or make up your own tactics.

How to Put Boundary Spanning Leadership Into Practice

In our work with clients, CCL uses a range of tactics to jump-start a process or to crack open a specific challenge where effective boundary spanning is imperative.

One of our favorites is the Walk-and-Talk, a surprisingly simple way to connect with others. We recommend that people from different groups to pair up for a 15-20 minute walk and ask each other 4 questions:

  • What brought you to your profession (or to this job or to your company)?
  • What do you enjoy most about your work?
  • What do you wish you were doing more of?
  • How do you like to spend your time when you are not working?

The first question often unlocks a passion and commitment that people have for their work. It’s part of their personal story. It usually engages both people, leading to a comfortable conversation around the other questions.

This is an activity that can readily be built into a normal working day, workshop or training session, or when new people are brought together to resolve a shared challenge or create something new.

Benefits of Expanding and Spanning Boundaries

Leaders who effectively practice boundary spanning 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; and
  • Global mindsets and cross-regional collaboration.

Ready to tear down organizational silos to increase productivity, collaboration, and innovation? Equip your team to practice the 6 principles of Boundary Spanning Leadership with our Boundary Spanning Workshop Kit.


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