Boundary Spanning Leadership: Vertical

boundary spanning leadership

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This is Part One of a five-part blog series that looks to define the five boundaries of leadership and navigate strategies for success in each.

As you rise through the ranks of management, it becomes clear management and leadership continue to be a complex game, and perhaps you will discover the game becomes more challenging and prolonged over time. We spend a lot of effort sharpening our skills to manage up and manage down, but the reality is the compass points in many more directions than that.

Over the course of a year, the Center for Creative Leadership surveyed 128 executive leaders who participated in the Leadership at the Peak program. Executives were senior level managers in their respective companies with more than 15 years of experience and responsible for more than 500 people. The findings of this research were published in a white paper. Some key pieces of this puzzle are:

  • A shift is needed to move from boundary protection to boundary spanning leadership.
  • Solutions to the most pressing challenges lie at the intersection of the five boundaries: vertical, horizontal, stakeholder, demographic and geographic.
  • There is a gap between knowing the importance of boundary spanning leadership (86% agreeance) and believing one is very effective in boundary spanning leadership (7%).

These concepts may be new to you or perhaps they hit home. Join me for this five-part blog series as we define the five boundaries and navigate strategies for success.

The first boundary we will discuss is the one you are likely most familiar with. Vertical boundaries refer to leading across rank, level, seniority, authority and power. You have probably heard the term managing up. It’s that balance of managing not only those team members who report to you but also the person(s) you report to. Take a trip with me on the following analogy:

Every airport is different.

Pilots are qualified for the type of aircraft they fly. Let’s take, for example, a pilot is qualified for the Airbus 319, 320 and 321 series aircraft. If a pilot was flying an Airbus 321 and approached every landing the same at every airport, it would be disastrous. Flying into Miami International (MIA) and San Diego International (SAN) are two totally different scenarios. Yes, they are both by the ocean, but MIA is flat and bordered by the everglades while SAN only has one runway and is boarded by mountainous terrain; therefore, the approach must be different to meet the needs and parameters of the airport.

People are a lot like airports. Yes, you may have three people report to you and serve similar purposes, but having specific characteristics makes them unique. As a supervisor, you must adjust your management style to meet the needs of your individual employees. It’s really the basics of behavior change; you can’t force someone to do something they either don’t want to do or don’t understand why it is even important for them to do.

Is the secret of managing up or managing down really as simple as getting someone to do something by convincing them they want to do it? It’s more complicated than that, but we can all probably agree we’ve worked with someone who buys into things much more if it’s “their” idea.

Let’s go back to the airport for a moment. I was on a redeye flight one night coming back from San Diego. SAN is the busiest single runway airport in the United States and third in the world. Typically, at SAN you land from the east coming from the mountainous terrain and take off to the west departing over the ocean, then bank the turn to go the direction of your destination.

This particular night there was a heavy marine layer, or June Gloom as many Californians refer to it, so all flights had to land from the west and takeoff to the east. Our pilot informed us our Airbus 321 aircraft was completely full with a heavy cargo load and if we took off toward the east we would not clear the mountainous terrain. Because of this, we would need to wait until air traffic control could get a gap of airspace for us to take off toward the west and not be in the way of any incoming flights. Our pilot had a clear understanding of the needs of his aircraft, the needs of the airport and its surrounding areas. You should also have a clear understanding of your own management style, your employees and your work environment.

Empower employees at all levels.

Knowing the strengths of your employees and supervisors isn’t enough to capitalize on spanning your vertical boundaries. Employees should be empowered at all levels and it’s the responsibility of supervisors to do so. Empowering employees doesn’t mean giving them free reign to do whatever they want, whenever they want or how they want. Remember, the first rule of employee engagement is that your employees need to be able answer yes to the following questions:

  1. Do you know what is expected of you at work?
  2. Do you have the materials and equipment to do your job right?

You must provide the base of support for your employees to be able to do their jobs so you can further empower them by giving ownership in their role and the responsibility to be able to make decisions. Southwest Airlines, a go-to for a customer experience icon, has one of the lowest escalation rates for customer service calls in the transportation industry. Why is this? Southwest develops a training program where employees of all levels can make decisions, within reason, to meet the needs of their customers. This means there is no reason to “speak to the manager.”

Another specific example is when author, researcher and professor Dr. Brene Brown implemented all employees of her company, The Daring Way, have the authority to fix any problem up to the amount of $500 without approval from a supervisor.

Do you know the individual needs of your employees? How have you recently empowered them? Remember, just because you fly an Airbus 321 doesn’t mean you can land it at SAN the same way you do MIA. Boundaries, like management, aren’t just up and down; adjust your flight path as needed to ensure everyone gets the job done well and gets home safe at the end of the day.

Over and out.

Steven Trotter
Steven Trotter, MS, is a consultant, continuing education provider, adjunct faculty member in health and fitness science, and principal for Globetrotter Wellness Solutions. He also serves as the associate director for wellness and fitness at East Carolina University. His expertise is rooted in university rec programs with a repertoire in leadership and organizational development, fitness facility design and management, behavior change, and program management. Steven is a 2017 IDEA Program Director of the Year finalist and presents at numerous conferences across North America each year. He is a subject matter expert and blogger for the American Council on Exercise and previously served a 3.5-year term on the industry advisory panel. Steven has a master of science in health in physical education from Virginia Tech and bachelor of science in exercise science from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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