How to be a Boundary Spanner


By Alvin Ung

Historically, most leaders are skilled at working within the vertical boundaries and horizontal boundaries. But there are challenges that cannot be solved by leading within your team, function, region alone.

Today, leaders need to cross boundaries all day, everyday. Such leaders need to move across invisible, social and geographical boundaries to connect in powerful and creative new ways. They need to break down silos, collaborate across diverse viewpoints, and build commitment at all levels.

Leaders who span vertical boundaries are able to lead across levels, rank, seniority, authority and power. Leaders who span horizontal boundaries are able to lead across functions, units, peers and expertise.

“We need to create boundary spanners,” said Dato’ Sri Dr Halim Shafie, the chairman of Telekom Malaysia, who did his PhD work on “human information processing” – which studies behaviour traits of people searching for information. (This field of study requires the integration of computer science, organisational behaviour and information resources.) “In the government, we have to open up in terms of communication. The goal is to create a rich flow of communication.

We should be able to operate in different environments. It is something we do consciously.”

The challenge today is finding new ways to break boundaries in order to bring fresh insights into the organisation. How do we become boundary spanners?

  1. Travel. As chair of the national library, Dr Halim visited the libraries in Seoul and Copenhagen to learn from their library systems.
  2. Read. During our interview, Dr Halim pulled out his Blackberry and showed me his reading list, which included Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life and Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. Then he added to his reading list a book that I suggested – Quiet by Susan Cain.
  3. Listen. “Listening is an art. I repeatedly tell myself to stop talking, and let the other person talk,” said Dr Halim.
  4. Tell stories. The best way to integrate and communicate what you’ve learned from the outside-in is to tell stories about your discoveries, says Dr Halim.
  5. Not least, if you are a top leader in the organisation, then you need to grow people who can go out, bring in information from the outside, and then develop structures and run meetings that will diffuse the information into the rest of the organisation.



For the full story of Human potential, please click here.

For the full video of Human potential, please click here.

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