Entrenched boundaries can limit an organization’s success; enlightened leaders see them not just as problems to solve but also as potential opportunities.
As Thomas Friedman so persuasively argued in his book The World is Flat,1 a significant effect of globalization is a leveling of the playing field for many of the competitors in today’s worldwide markets. Technological innovations have revolutionized the workplace, bringing the competitive power of emerging economies’ fast-growth organizations into closer alignment with their developed-world counterparts. Paradoxically, at the same time that these developments have made doing business across borders easier, relational barriers — obstacles to productive human interactions — not only remain largely unchanged but in some cases have deepened.
Consider the hurdles faced by those who lead functionally diverse teams across levels of management and with a variety of organizational partners who often are based in different countries. These leaders’ jobs are made easier by the technological advances that help to close gaps involving distance and knowledge. But the leaders also are confronted with entrenched boundaries such as residual bitterness between historical enemies, culture clashes, turf battles and generation gaps. Such boundaries invite conflict, impose limitations on performance and stifle innovation.
The Leading Question
What are the major boundaries faced by organizations and what kinds of practices may leaders employ to span them?
- The boundaries are vertical, horizontal, stakeholder, demographic and geographic.
- The practices are buffering, reflecting, connecting, mobilizing, weaving and transforming.
- Their use results in safety, respect, trust, community, interdependence and reinvention.
It is clear that a flat world requires a shift to new and more effective leadership strategies, especially as leaders move from middle- to senior-level management. But provocative questions must first be addressed: Which boundaries create the greatest challenges? What are the implications for those who manage and execute business strategy when boundaries are constantly changing? How do leaders span these boundaries, thereby potentially enabling groups to achieve results together that are well beyond what they could have done on their own?
Seeking answers to these questions, we and our colleagues at the Center for Creative Leadership developed a comprehensive database from some 2,800 survey responses and nearly 300 in-depth interviews with leaders across six global regions. We also surveyed an additional 128 CEOs, senior vice presidents and directors of some of the world’s most recognizable companies. In this article, we share these findings.