I recently presented some of Chris and Donna’s ideas at a meeting of the Boston University/ CCL sponsored Executive Development Roundtable, which gathers represetatives of its 30 or so member companies together on a semi-annual basis to talk about issues of current interest to its members.  The theme for the meeting was “Collaborating in a Dynamic, Globally Connnected World”.

The meeting began with Rob Cross presenting his research on social networks in organizations (catch Rob at www.robcross.org ), bringing attention not just to how connected we are and aren’t, but how the nature of our connections can effect our energy for continued collaboration.

I followed with a presentation entitled “Collaboration and Leading the Global Enterprise” which called for radical change in how we think about leadership in global organizations going forward in this dynamic, interconnected, complex and uncertain world.  Using CCL’s Boundary Explorer cards available on this website, executives worked through what their greatest boundary spanning challenges with leading complex global organizations were, and what could be done to address these challenges.  The conversation was rich and insightful.  Leaders from a Japanese-owned company with operations in the U.S. noted that while we often assume that American leaders are behind the curve when it comes to operating globally, their Japanese owners have a lot to learn in this regard as well.

In fact, with a few notable exceptions like Nestle, Unilever and Standard Chartered Bank, there are relatively few companies that have deep experience in creating global organizations that really know how to address collaborative challenges across geographic and functional boundaries.  Companies that do more than 66% of their business outside of their home region are bound to have learned something about working globally, and these companies meet that criteria.  So do Coke and GM, so it’s not that U.S. companies are completely in the dark.  Others are close but not quite there yet from a revenue standpoint: HP, IBM. Pepsi, Ford, Citibank.  But all are moving in that direction, and see growing revenues outside the U.S. as critical part of their strategies going forward.

Attendees at the Roundtable shared these concerns, even though a few of their organizations were not poised for global growth.  Most healthcare organizations, for example, aren’t going global anytime soon, but nevertheless they are well aware of the importance of doing a better job of spanning internal boundaries.   When it comes down to the actual skills required to do so, as Chris and Donna point out, ther are really only a handful of ways to span boundaries.  The challenge is in mastering them, which is something that the attendees agreed that they needed more practice to do.

Since the focus of the Roundtable is on executive development, we talked about ways in which executives could learn better boundary management skills.  A panel of executives (Ingar Skaug, recently retired as CEO if Wilhelmsen Shipping, a Norweigian company; John Ryan, President and CEO of the Center for Creative Leadership; and Ken Freeman, Dean of the Boston University School of Business and former CEO fo Quest Diagnostics) reflected on what they had learned about boundary spanning over the course of their careers and how they had learned it.  What became clear as they spoke was that their experiences were born of necessity, and that their learning required an emotional as well as an intellectual commitment.  Learning to span boundaries isn’t just a matter of understanding the theory, it’s a matter of putting oneself on the line, taking the risks associated with doing so, and committing to improve over time regardless of one’s initial successes or failures.

Ken Freeman at the Boston University EDRT

As I reflect on the meeting, it’s clear that we know a great deal more about how to think about spanning boundaries than we did a few years ago.  Chris and Donna’s book has certainly added to that knowledge.  Yet, as the discussions at the Roundtable attest, most of us have a long way to go before we begin to feel comfortable in our ability to span complex global and functional boundaries in our increasingly far-flung enterprises.  As the executives at the roundtable noted, it’s not important where we’re starting from.  What matters is that we know where we’re headed and that we’re committed to learning our way there through practice.

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