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Book Review: Boundary Spanning Leadership

BOUNDARY SPANNING LEADERSHIP: Six Practices for Solving Problems, Driving Innovation, and Transforming Organizations  by Chris Ernst and Donna Chrobot-Mason

It’s rare to find a book on contemporary leadership that not only frames relevant issues faced by organization leaders in identifying commonly encountered boundaries, but it also offers practical solutions to spanning these boundaries. These solutions are based on a decade of real-world research by leadership professionals at the Center for Creative Leadership. I suspect that readers will either already be dealing with many of the issues presented and find the discussions a veritable lifeline, or they will instantly recognize situations they’ve encountered before and understand, perhaps for the first time, why they were so challenging and intractable.

The rapidly shifting landscape of organizational leadership creates unique pitfalls as well as opportunities. In research surveys of over well over 100 senior level executives, an appallingly low number felt they were very effective at knowing how to collaborate effectively across boundaries. Five primary boundary types were identified for discussion purposes, though the authors recognized that often they are closely linked:

  1. Vertical boundaries between hierarchical levels of the organization
  2. Horizontal boundaries between functions
  3. Stakeholder boundaries with customers and vendors
  4. Demographic boundaries in working with people from diverse groups
  5. Geographic boundaries of distance and region

Concluding that boundary spanning practices can turn boundaries into frontiers ripe with untapped potential, the authors explore what these practices might be, providing compelling actual stories/examples to illustrate them, and offering exercises and strategies to implement them in the reader’s own situation.

The authors begin with a discussion of the boundary management practices of Buffering (Creating Safety) and Reflecting (Fostering Respect). Then they move into practices that forge common ground: Connection (Building Trust) and Mobilizing (Developing Community). Next in the evolution of boundary-spanning are the practices that develop new frontiers: Weaving (Advancing interdependence) and Transforming (Enabling Reinvention).

“Together, these practices combine to create what authors Chris Ernst and Donna Chrobot-Mason call the Nexus Effect. The Nexus Effect allows groups to be more agile in response to changing markets; be more flexible in devising and deploying cross-functional learning and problem-solving capabilities; work with partners in deeper, more open relationships; empower virtual teams; and create a welcoming, diverse, and inclusive organization that brings out everybody’s best.” (From the Editorial Review in Amazon)

While the challenges described here will be familiar to those who follow leadership trends and practices, I believe many will find the authors’ approach to be original, useful and implementable in thinking about and managing them.

What boundary-spanning challenges does your organization face?

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