Leading across the organisation

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Many of us crave stability, or at least a degree of it, in our working lives. This stability takes in organisational structures, lines of authority, colleague relationships, work patterns and cycles, and the goals we have to achieve.  We look for, or construct for ourselves, something regular, routine and with consistent reference points.  But there is a fine line between stability and stagnation, and when the wind of change blows there can be a strong inclination to build walls, become protective and create silos.

“When the wind of change blows, some build walls, others build windmills”
(Chinese proverb)

Within universities there are a lot of things we do to service established patterns, structures and cycles. The academic year itself drives various routines, assessing student work creates imperatives (things that have to be done), there are set requirements for research grant applications and timetables that go with them, and our committee structures have a life of their own in terms of servicing and bureaucracy.  But what happens when the scale of change is so profound that it starts to create a paradigm shift?  What happens when organisations start redefining success?  What happens when a new alignment is urgently required with the needs and expectations of users, customers and stakeholders (or even with society itself)?

“Just as we’ve seen the forces of technology and globalisation transform sectors such as media and communications or banking and finance over the last two decades, these forces may now transform higher education. The solid classical buildings of great universities may look permanent but the storms of change now threaten them”.
(An Avalanche is Coming – Barber, Donnelly and Rizvi, IPPR, March 2013)

For academic colleagues there is an increasing need to work across disciplines, whether in curriculum design, research or enterprise. Indeed, it could be said that the big questions of today like climate change, urbanisation, alleviating poverty, food security and global public health can only be effectively addressed through international partnerships of universities, research institutes and NGOs working together.  And within institutions the challenge for professional service leaders is increasingly to span boundaries and work across the organisation.  To enhance the student experience universities are increasingly looking for unified services that work in a joined-up way; to develop excellent new facilities we expect the human, technological and infrastructure considerations to be worked through in unison; and to achieve greater business efficiency there is a quest for synergies through shared services, goal alignment and partnering.

All of this presents significant challenges to university leaders, and not just those at the most senior levels. To work across the organisation requires leaders to take an inclusive approach, to liberate talent, to engage people collaboratively, to build collective commitment and to create a sense of both pride and mutual accountability.  To help develop leaders in these sophisticated, collaborative ways of operating we have created a model that looks at and contrasts the different ways of leading across the organisation.  This model is used on our Leading Across Professional Boundaries programme and was showcased during a workshop session at the AUA Conference, Revolution and Reinvention, in April. The model sets out four distinct approaches and defines them in terms of how organisational boundaries are viewed or conceptualised (this draws on the work of Chris Ernst and colleagues at the Centre for Creative Leadership on Boundary Spanning Leadership – 2011). The Leading Across the Organisation model sets out four distinct leadership approaches: silo leadership, wait-and-see leadership, side-by-side leadership and boundary spanning leadership. The following is a short description of each:

Silo leadership is protective of structures, procedures and ways of working that have been established over time, often with considerable investment. It values continuity and is concerned with preserving knowledge and effectiveness.

Boundaries are… BORDERS that make sense in all sorts of ways from the perspective of continuity, stability and the status quo. They are guarded to ensure that limited resources are not imposed upon and roles don’t become blurred. 

Strengths are qualities like stability, continuity and loyalty. Limitations may include resistance to change, restraining talent and functional isolation.

Wait-and-see leadership is the ability to work cooperatively on projects/initiatives once others have taken the first steps. Conscious of limits and capacity the wait-and-see leader may need the courage of others to look beyond risks.

Boundaries are… LIMITS to responsibility, communication and importantly risk. If others move first, or seniors set the pace, then limits may be crossed, but nearly always with caution even if the prospects seem attractive.

Strengths are taking measured steps, using resources efficiently and being a considered voice. Limitations may include being slow to respond, appearing unengaged and being cooperative rather than collaborative.

Side-by-side leadership is the ability to work alongside other parts of the organisation matching flexibly and often proactively the contribution of their area to the needs of others as they perceive and experience them.

Boundaries are… FRAMES that enable organisations to be structured in terms of responsibilities and resources but which can move, shift and overlap in exciting ways to achieve projects and shared goals at different times.

Strengths are being proactive and energetic, spotting opportunities and being keen to develop new ideas. Limitations may include being competitive, favouring partners selectively and possibly holding back where change is more profound.

Boundary spanning leadership is the ability to create direction, alignment, and commitment across boundaries in service of a higher vision or goal.”*  Empowering others to change and ‘think big’ is part of this far-sighted approach.

Boundaries are… FRONTIERS – “the location where the most advanced thinking and breakthrough possibilities reside”* – they are zones of transition with the potential to reshape the organisation. (*Boundary Spanning Leadership, Chris Ernst and Donna Chrobot-Mason, 2011, McGraw Hill, USA.)

Strengths are engaging the hearts and minds of followers, moving from hierarchy to partnership and distributing leadership, and building long-term relationships both within and outside the organisation (a far-sighted approach). Limitations may include judging clearly where collaboration truly fits the situation, sticking power if new exciting possibilities arise, and frustration if change is slow and progress meets systemic resistance.

The core purpose of this model is self-awareness, personal insight and creating a vocabulary to discuss and contrast leadership mind-sets and behaviours. But “when the wind of change blows,” to come back to the provocation in that wonderful Chinese proverb, do we wait and see, do we temporarily re-frame things to work side-by-side with those we favour, or do we span boundaries through our leadership to re-shape the organisation?  Courageous and selfless leadership is the essence of this approach.

Doug Parkin is a full-time programme director at the Leadership Foundation. He currently heads the Future Leaders Programme, Leading Across Professional Boundaries, Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership and Leading Transformation in Learning and Teaching, and also carries out a wide range of consultancy engagements in universities.