An Undiscovered Path to Personal Growth

by Ram Charan

Utility Links

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Just about every company has some kind of organizational structure that divides people into departments or business functions or geographic units, or all of the above.

As much as businesses need these structural divisions to organize work, information and ideas have to flow across them. Only then can people make informed tradeoffs and decisions, and keep the various parts of the business coordinated. Decisions are smarter and execution is faster.

There's no structural fix that can ensure that information and ideas flow freely. It's up to all of us to shape relationships among our peers in order to share more, coordinate better, and work toward a common purpose.

The Need for Horizontal Leadership

This ability to lead horizontally across organizational boundaries, without formal authority over others, is a key capability for a 21st-century leader. As you practice it, you'll expand your view of the business and master techniques to get the organization to work as seamlessly as it should.

Business today is far too complex for individuals to make decisions alone, or based solely on the information and perspective of their particular silo. Yet that's precisely what many leaders do.

When I've polled companies about their ability to work across organizational boundaries, the results are almost always disappointing. The responses at one company are typical: More than 75 percent of managers said the company was lousy, pretty bad, or just so-so at working across organizational boundaries. Less than 20 percent thought the company was good at it, and just 3 percent said the company was among the best. When asked about the flow of information from one part of the business to another, results were equally disheartening.

How would you rate your company on horizontal collaboration? If it's on the low end of the scale, consider the likely consequences: slow and/or low-quality decisions, unresolved conflicts, poor execution, and missed opportunities.

Think, then, of the improvements you can make by learning to be a leader among your peers -- one who knits various parts of the business together.

Four Principles to Practice

One exciting truth about being a horizontal leader is that you don't have to wait for someone to assign you that role. All you need is a willingness to expand your thinking and to change some of your basic beliefs.

For instance, you can't see your peers as competition. Even if you and they are in contention for the same job or for limited resources, you have to focus on finding the common ground.

Adhering to four principles will help you develop your skill in horizontal leadership:

   Focus on the big picture

You have to let go of the idea that you run your own show. What you run is part of something larger. You have to focus on the bigger picture, and help others see it, too.

For example, if you're leading an engineering group involved in new-product development, remind your peers in marketing and manufacturing that what matters most is the success of the project. Who should get the resources? Create a dialogue around finding what works best to reach the shared goal.

   Listen carefully

In all your interactions, you have to be sure you're listening and learning. What constraints do the other departments or functional areas have? What are they trying to achieve? What are their frustrations?

As you listen, you'll begin to learn important new facts about the company and the external world. You'll starting seeing things from different angles. Looking at the same issue from different perspectives will help you shape solutions and alternatives you hadn't thought of before.

   Interact often

Information will flow more freely if you communicate with your peers frequently and consistently. Work with them to arrange some means for touching base on a routine basis -- say, through a once-a-week meeting or conference call.

If you already have committees or councils that meet regularly, supplement them with informal discussions whenever possible. Invite people to lunch, or call people once a week just to touch base. That way, you can keep abreast of emerging issues and concerns.

   Don't dodge the conflicts

Maybe you need marketing resources to support a new product introduction, but your peers also want them to launch a product of their own. Maybe you need more engineers working on your project so you can beat a competitor to market, but another group needs engineers to support changes from a major customer. These are the kinds of conflicts that arise in everyday organizational life.

This is precisely where your horizontal leadership will be most valuable. Rather than waiting for conflicts to percolate up to higher organizational levels and decisions to trickle down, you should draw these conflicts to the surface and press to get them resolved at your level.

Help all the players see what's at stake for each side, and keep reminding people about the big picture. Advocate your own point of view but don't presume to have all the answers. Facilitate a discussion so the right tradeoffs emerge.

Build Bridges -- and Success

The funny thing is, when you realize that organizations must be led horizontally as well as vertically, it's harder to blame others for organizational failings. Is decision-making too slow? Maybe you haven't done enough to speed it up. Is distrust rampant? What have you done to build bridges?

If you take on the mantle of horizontal leadership you'll make your company faster, more flexible, and more responsive to customers and changes in the outside world. You'll also expand your personal leadership capability and improve your chances for success.

The ultimate payoff will come when the scope of your job expands -- for instance, when you move from one department or functional silo to a general management role, or from leading one geographic region to leading several. Your broader view of the business and ability to foster collaboration will surely give you an edge in keeping the organization synchronized and moving forward.