Matrix Management / Virtual Teams

Boundary spanning leadership

As psychologists have been telling us for years, it is human nature for us to create groups and try and stay within them – whether that be in families, football teams or corporate functions.  Yet today’s hyper-connected business world requires us to become ‘boundary-spanning leaders’.  As this is contrary to our in-built human tendencies, this will only happen with positive effort and know-how.

Research by the Centre for Creative Leadership finds that: “today’s world calls for a critical transformation in leadership from managing and protecting boundaries to boundary spanning— the capability to create direction, alignment, and commitment across boundaries in service of a higher vision or goal.”  This is true for matrix organizations, but also any networked organization aiming to deliver a superb customer experience through joined up working (which, let’s face it, should be all of us).

Leaders at all levels need to learn how to span horizontal, geographic, demographic, stakeholder and vertical boundaries, according to the themes that came out of their research with senior executives.

They unearthed a critical gap between how important boundary spanning leadership is, and how effective the different levels of management are at currently doing it (see figure below):

How would you rate the importance vs. effectiveness of boundary-spanning leadership in your organization? What about for yourself?

As we can see, the biggest gap tends to be at the level of middle management – where a big transition has to occur between gunning for the success of your individual team, to seeing how your work fits within the big picture and learning how to build connections across all parts of your matrix organization and beyond.

People who shine as individual contributors or team leads don’t necessarily have this as an in-built tendency – but these are skills that can be learnt.  We use a tool called ‘Network map’ to help our matrix participants visualize their close and wider networks, and to identify which key relationships they need to develop further and how best to spend their precious time.

The top 3 ‘boundary spanning’ skill gaps identified by the CCL research were:

  1. Cross-functional working
  2. Global vs local mindset
  3. Cross-generational learning

Which of these gaps are most pertinent to your team?

This last point is particularly relevant in the current digital revolution.  A number of our clients have formalized ‘reverse mentor’ relationships, where younger, more tech-savvy middle managers are mentoring senior leaders on how they can better harness technology and drive digital transformation.

As always there’s a tension in a matrix organization between how much time to spend building networks, communicating across silos and seeking diverse input – and getting your head down and focusing on a particular task.  A 2018 paper by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) argues that to thrive in today’s hyper-connected organizations we need to be developing both our curiosity and concentration. The trick is to know when and how to ramp up either skill.

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