Mission Critical Perspectives from the Executive Suite

Managers traditionally learn to manage vertically — to work upward with senior colleagues and downward with direct reports. But it’s also critical for managers to work effectively across functions, locations, and with external stakeholders.
Global competition, changing demographics, and increased cross organizational exchanges are radically changing the market dynamics in which we operate, requiring leaders reach beyond the boxes and lines of traditional organizational charts.
Despite the importance of boundary-spanning leadership, few executives describe themselves as “very effective” at this crucial skill.

We recently surveyed 128 senior executives who participated in our Leadership at the Peak program. A whopping 86% of these executives at the senior-most levels of their organizations — with more than 15 years of management experience and responsibility for at least 500 people — described working across boundaries as “extremely important. Nearly all of them (99%) at least described boundary spanning as “important.”

But despite overwhelming agreement that boundary spanning is essential, a mere 7% of these senior executives described themselves as “very effective” at doing so.

In addition to rating boundary spanning capabilities in their role, we asked the senior executives to assess the importance and effectiveness of boundary spanning for managers at different levels of their organization. The results are strikingly consistent — the gap between perceived importance and effectiveness is apparent at all levels of the organization.
When asked to assess their peers at the senior executive level, 97% rated boundary spanning as an important capability, yet only 53% agreed that senior executives in their organization were effective in this capability — a gap of 44%.
This gap is significantly larger in their assessment of middle managers — a gap of 72% between perceived importance and effectiveness of boundary spanning capability. The gap is narrower for entry-level managers primarily due to lower perceived importance ratings — a gap of 35%. Across all levels, the wide discrepancy between importance and effectiveness of boundary spanning is one that requires considerable attention.
The transition from entry- to middle- to senior-level leadership positions requires a transformational shift from holding a team or functional perspective to an approach that perceives a team or function within the broader aims of the organizational strategy or vision. The executives we surveyed experienced the impact of this shift first hand. In fact, 92% acknowledged that the capability to work across boundaries became more important as they transitioned from middle- to senior-level leadership roles.
In today’s knowledge economy organizations are transforming from rigid hierarchical structures to networked structures with flows of people, information, and resources across boundaries. Ever-increasing interconnections facilitated by advances in technology have led to new forms of organizing such as cross-functional teams, virtual workgroups, and cross sector partnerships. This shift has given rise to a set of mission critical boundaries that leaders have to work across.
The leaders we surveyed identified 5 kinds of boundaries: vertical, horizontal, stakeholder, demographic, and geographic.
When we look across the boundary dimensions cited by the executives, the need to work across horizontal boundaries was identified the most frequently (71%). Executives mentioned geographic (26%), demographic (17%), and stakeholder (17%) boundaries with relatively similar frequency, followed by vertical boundaries (7%).
Our expectation is that these percentages will dramatically rise in the years ahead. As organizations expand their footprint to all corners of the globe, as they employ an increasingly diverse talent pool, and as they seek new competitive advantage through complex inter-organizational alliances, joint ventures, and partnerships, leadership will increasingly be practiced at the boundary where disparate groups meet.

Will organizations like yours be ready to meet those challenges? Download the full white paper to explore our findings and insights in more detail.


Additional Contributing Authors:

Jeffrey Yip is a former Research Associate with the Center for Creative Leadership and a Research Fellow with the Learning Innovations Laboratory at Harvard University. He is also co-founder and board member with the Halogen Foundation. Jeffrey’s research is focused on identifying the mindsets and practices of effective boundary spanning leadership; and the conditions that enable this in organizations.

Chris Ernst is a former Senior Enterprise Associate with the Center for Creative Leadership. His work centers on advancing interdependent, boundary-spanning leadership capabilities within individuals, organizations, and broader communities. Chris writes and presents frequently on global issues and is author of several books.

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