There’s an interesting paradox at the heart of today’s connected world. Technology and communications have created more and more social connections between widely dispersed groups of people. But those same tools strengthen divisions, breaking down visible and physical boundaries while bolstering invisible and mental disconnections.
“The boundaries that matter most to us today – and why this is so challenging from a leadership perspective – is that the boundaries are now found more in human relationships —in us and in them, across layers of management, across silos, across different organizational cultures,” said Chris Ernst, senior researcher for the Center for Creative Leadership and co-author of Boundary Spanning Leadership.
These boundaries are especially tricky because they are often tied up in a deeper level of identity. But to solve the complex problems facing today’s organizations and create new opportunities for growth, leaders must learn to think and act beyond those boundaries and identities. Meaningful leadership development experiences, not training, can be an answer.
Ernst said there are five common boundaries found in business today:
• Vertical boundaries across organizational levels and authority structures.
• Horizontal boundaries across wide ranging functions and expertise.
• External stakeholder boundaries with partners, suppliers, customers, communities and governments.
• Demographic boundaries.
• Geographic boundaries across locations.
“They’re most recognized by the everyday business vernacular we hear: silos, stovepipes, culture clashes, diversity divides, turf battles,” Ernst said.
Ernst and his co-author identified six practices for helping leaders adapt, alter and modify the shape of boundaries in organizations:
• Buffering to define boundaries and create safety.
• Reflecting to foster understanding and respect.
• Connecting to build trust.
• Mobilizing to develop community.
• Weaving to create interdependence.
• Transforming to cut across boundaries.
To help leaders develop skills in these areas, CLOs need to create work environments and experiences that challenge leaders to get out of their silos.
“The key for CLOs to think about how they can identify strategic change challenges in the organization, how they can create these cross-boundary teams that get people outside of their normal, everyday working environment and working in new ways,” Ernst said. “You give them the ability to advance strategic organizational issues and simultaneously they’re building collaborative networks, they’re building new skills, they’re building new mindsets and perspectives as they work across boundaries in service of implementing organizational change.”
These sorts of skills can be learned in a classroom. They can be done with simulations. But learning by doing is one of the most powerful ways, Ernst said. “There’s nothing like the power of real work, especially real work that matters where there is real skin in the game,” he said.
But CLOs can’t just provide the challenge; they need to structure the experience and provide coaches, facilitators, feedback and just-in-time tools. The individual and the organization benefit as a result.
“By having them work on real strategic change initiatives of the organization, they are simultaneously helping to advance the business strategy of the organization while developing individual leadership capabilities,” he said.
Boundaries often convey constraints or limits, and there is certainly no shortage of those in today’s business environment. But there is different way to think about them.
“They’re the locations where the newest, most advanced, most innovative activity is happening in any given area,” Ernst said. “We talk about boundary-spanning leadership as this ability to create direction, alignment and commitment across these boundaries in order to turn borders and constraints into new and innovative frontiers for organizations today.”
Mike Prokopeak is editorial director for Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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