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Boundary Spanning and Developing Your Critical Networks

Tags:  (2017 Apr 27th - 4:40pm)

Boundary spanning and expanding your strategic network has never been more essential. Ever-evolving operational environments, coupled with growing interdependence, innovation, and diversity, compel leaders at all levels of the organization to strive to stay productive to reach across boundaries. Imperatives include

  • Boosting organizational performance by making novel formal and informal contacts.
  • Addressing dynamic and complex challenges as they emerge.
  • Channeling information to the functional areas that most need it quickly and efficiently instead of relying on overly broad distribution and traditional leadership hierarchies.
  • Developing strategy with input from across all parts of the organization being impacted by rapidly changing events in the external environment.

This final need for boundary spanning is particularly acute because few people in a single organization can adequately interpret every outside factor sufficiently. Making strategy-setting an organizational function -  rather than a C-suite function - is possible when critical networks are expansive and inclusive.

Why Boundary Spanning and Critical Networks Are Important

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) reported in its 2009 whitepaper Mission Critical Perspectives From the Executive Suite that 86 percent of senior executives surveyed recognized boundary spanning as being extremely important. Despite this, only 7 percent of the executives considered themselves effective at moving beyond the defined borders of their current roles.

That gap opens opportunities to pull ahead of the pack and build a foundation for success not just for executives, it includes managers, supervisors and individual contributors. It is also important for the organization as a whole when networks extend beyond its own walls.  These opportunities are especially apparent now as work itself is in a state of constant flux with greater reliance on relationships and information-sharing, as well as increased utilization of technology in every facet of our lives.

Increasingly, agencies face collective problems that require collaborative solutions. Boundary spanning and network expansion enable personal and organizational success at all levels by opening minds, identifying gaps in thinking and increasing overall knowledge and capabilities. During times of challenge and change, executives who successfully practice these skills find innovative solutions by leveraging shared knowledge and cumulative creativity. Additionally, those who have broad networks and open boundaries are more likely to be seen as essential to their organization and properly supported.

Boundary Spanning, Critical Networks and the Organization

Gone are the days when an organization can rely on a hierarchical, linear organizational chart while focusing solely on creating value within the organization. Facing increasingly interconnected global challenges, changing demographics, the formation of joint ventures, partnerships and alliances, diversity of employees and the demand for social responsibility, and cross-organizational needs, organization must look to expand boundaries in all directions by building synergetic networks. Growth can only be achieved through innovation, technology and cooperative relationships. Then, as Fernando Olivera and Mary Crossan emphasized in their May/June 2006 Ivey Business Journal article “Cross-Enterprise Leadership,” value must be dispersed externally across the synergetic networks, which are fluid and adaptable enough to allow multiple organizations to meet unprecedented challenges. Boundary spanning and enlarged strategic networks allow executives to keep pace with changes by expanding global mindsets and cultural insights, and also by giving them access to a diversity of expertise through cross-generational and cross-regional partnerships.

These trends are shaping the strategies of organizations, and boundary spanning and building critical networks are key to keeping up with them.

Critical Networks and the Executive

Growing numbers of leaders at all levels are recognizing that expanding their boundaries and networks helps them stay relevant by providing access to greater knowledge, creativity and support. This enables them to achieve outcomes above what they could have on their own.

The embrace of the collaborative enterprise has also made leading the responsibility of many managers instead of one executive. As organizational boundaries become less clear, leaders focus on big-picture issues rather than specific functions. The blurring of traditional boundaries further requires leaders at every level to be flexible, resilient and accountable, while simultaneously thinking strategically, resolving conflict, identifying new partners, facilitating relationships and building teams.

When it comes to facing professional obstacles or collective problems, executives benefit greatly from reaching out to critical networks because doing so often leads to groundbreaking solutions. Indeed, executives who keep their networks broad are better-equipped to handle trials in a number of ways. First, they are able to approach challenges with an open mind and view a problem from different perspectives. They also receive broader and deeper support for the solutions they implement.

Maintaining strong networks across industries, as well as with individuals from varied professional backgrounds and levels, establishes essential connections to a powerful alliance that provides executives with resilience, information and creativity. Overall, leaders who have expanded their critical networks to span boundaries set themselves up for long-term career success.

How to Boundary Span and Expand Critical Networks

Leaders and organizations can grow critical networks by

  • Horizontal spanning across functions and expertise, which opens up cross-functional collaborations and has been linked to increased innovation.
  • Vertical spanning to reduce the rigidity of hierarchical boundaries allows organizations to focus on value creation and strategic action rather than lines of reporting and approval.
  • Stakeholder boundary spanning, which recognizes the importance of external partnerships because no single organization can develop all the resources needed to incorporate new technologies and drive innovation.
  • Demographic spanning across gender, age, nationality, ethnicity and other characteristics to incorporate valuable, and traditionally overlooked, perspectives.
  • Geographic spanning across regions, which expands cultural and creative diversity.

A significant first step leaders must take toward boundary spanning is changing their mindsets from viewing networking as a task separate from their management role. They must, instead, view building critical networks by spanning boundaries as an integral component of achieving organizational outcomes. In other words, boundary spanning and expanding critical networks are not barriers to carrying out core responsibilities but bridges to continued success.

One final aspect for leaders to consider as they develop networks across boundaries and build strategic networks is the type of energy they bring to their work environments. You are only as good as the members of your network and only as successful as the extent to which other members of your network rely on your input.


Andrew Rahaman, Ed.D., has worked nationally and internationally with leaders and organizations of all sizes in the public and private sectors, including 26 years in federal government. He is an executive in residence at American University, where he teaches graduate courses on organizational learning and also for the university’s Key Executive Education Programs. Rahaman is also on the staff of the Center for Creative Leadership. He currently runs his own consulting firm, specializing in executive coaching, onboarding, organizational culture assessment and delivering leadership development programs. He can be reached at andrew@organizationalstrategiesgroup.com or Rahaman@american.edu.