A recent IBM study of more than 700 global chief human resource officers speaks to the urgent need for more boundary spanning leaders. In the paper Working Beyond Borders, IBM reports that driving corporate growth and innovation in the future means “engaging much more seamlessly across a wide range of geographic, functional and generational boundaries and borders.”

Unfortunately, the boundary spanning aspirations in most organizations are not living up to reality. Our research at CCL shows that 86 percent of senior leaders say that working across boundaries inside and outside their companies is extremely important. Just 7 percent, however, believe they are very effective at it.

That’s a huge gap – but the story doesn’t end there.

CCL research also suggests that the pressure to span boundaries may be greatest on middle managers shifting to senior-level jobs.

Boundary spanning is important for middle managers, according to 91 percent of senior executives surveyed. But only 19 percent of middle managers were seen as effective in working across boundaries — a gap of 72 percent between perceived importance and effectiveness of boundary spanning capability.

The ability to shift from a bounded, within-group mindset to one that skillfully bridges vertical, horizontal, stakeholder, demographic and geographic boundaries is a key challenge for leaders and organizations as a whole. Leaders recognize that innovation, by its very nature, requires intense and sustained collaboration across wide-ranging boundaries.

The IBM report suggests that organizations need to work beyond borders requires organizations to do three things:

Cultivate creative leaders. The IBM study says leaders need to develop “a flair for thinking about opportunities and challenges in completely different ways. These leaders must be able to provide direction to, as well as to motivate, reward and drive results from an increasingly dispersed and diverse employee base.” It’s the intersection where boundaries collide, intersect, and link that the source of new ideas and creative solutions emerge.

Mobilize for greater speed and flexibility.  “Companies must be willing to simplify processes and provide fast, adaptive workforce solutions to meet the requirements of a quickly changing marketplace. A responsive human capital supply chain and the ability to fluidly allocate resources are essential for competitive differentiation in today’s tumultuous environment.” The leadership advantage increasingly goes to organizations that can quickly integrate far-flung people and resources to capture emerging opportunities.

Capitalize on collective intelligence. “Tapping into a broad base of institutional knowledge is critical to developing and maintaining an innovative culture. Enterprises must adapt innovations, apply them across their organization and find new ways to connect people to each other and to information, both internally and externally.”

The old challenge for leaders involved how to operate effectively within the boxes and lines of traditional organizational charts. The new challenge is how to think and act beyond yesterday’s boundaries to discover innovative new frontiers.

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