What leadership does your organisation need to thrive - experts or boundary spanners?

These are the crucial questions to ask when appointing leaders, says UCT GSB's Dr Tim London.

Leadership is at an interesting point in its existence as both an area of practice and a field of study: there has been a huge proliferation of different leadership theories (even if they’re different mostly in name only) as well as a seeming over-eagerness to simplify the practice to leadership to almost absurd levels (“the 7 steps to success”, “the 4 key factors to consider”, etc.)

At the risk of feeding too heavily into the latter category of over-simplification, I do believe a key question that needs to be asked when choosing leaders is where they sit on a spectrum between “experts” and “boundary spanners”. While you’ll obviously need to know much more about any leader before putting them into a position of power, asking this question can actually be very useful to better understanding them as well as making the needs and ambitions of the organisation more transparent.

Experts in this case are people who have a notable depth of experience, training or ability to perform in a specific environment or at a specific task. These are the people in your organisation who everyone looks to for advice in specific areas: your top seller, most insightful marketer, resident PhD in financial modeling, or accounting whiz kid.

Boundary spanners are people who tend not to sit neatly in just one of your organisation’s verticals: they often serve as connectors between siloes, working with people from different areas of expertise. While they may never be your top salesperson, they’re likely able to successfully help get your sales manager to better work with the marketing team around a new product launch that stemmed from a change in strategy by the board.

There are obvious benefits to both types of people, depending on what your organisation needs and, it’s essential to note, these two labels are not mutually exclusive: there are people who have deep expertise in a narrow area yet are still able to comfortably connect with others from different spaces. For the purpose of this piece, however, it can be informative to set them at two ends of a spectrum.

Doing so creates an immediate realisation that you can have both, while also highlighting just what you think the organisation needs from their leader in that moment. For example, most job advertisements for leadership positions almost scream to the reader, “we’re not sure what we want or need, so here are a few generic qualifications and a certain number of years of experience”.

When a leadership position becomes vacant, I often counsel people who will be part of the hiring to have an honest conversation about “what kind of leader do we need?” This short circuits the normal processes like simply running the same advertisement that got the previous post holder or modeling the advertisement on the person who’s leaving. Obviously, the question of “what kind of leader do we need” is a massive one, so it’s useful to have the expert-boundary spanner spectrum as a tool to focus that conversation to be more honest as well as more productive.

Asking the question of whether a boundary spanner or expert is more appropriate early in the hiring/promotion process should then lead into several more specific questions being asked:

  • Are we more focused on coming up with new ideas right now, or on improving efficiencies in our current products/services?
  • Do we think the biggest opportunities for improvement are by improving internally or by adopting ideas from outside the organisation’s current skill and knowledge sets?
  • Is our organisational culture helping us achieve our stated purposes, or is it counterproductive?
  • What are the development needs of our current staff?
  • What are the leadership strengths and weaknesses we currently have across the organisation?

These questions must be asked broadly if they’re to generate meaningful input and robust discussion. Often, unfortunately, these type of conversations are had (if they’re had at all) by people in other senior leadership roles only. While that is certainly an important perspective to bring to bear on the situation, filing to bring in wider members of the organization, at all levels and across divisions/siloes, will likely lead to flawed data and analysis.

A key point of caution is to start all of these conversations with a focus on what type of leader needs to come next, so as to avoid the trap of simply debating the relative strengths and weaknesses of the outgoing incumbent. From these discussions, it is likely to become clear whether the position would benefit from approaches more linked to boundary spanners or to experts.

Again, to be clear, it is unlikely that you will need a leader who sits at either end of the spectrum, but in discussing these questions, there is a good chance that you can identify if they should be more to one side than the other. Not only does this give you insight into organisational needs, it provides opportunities for you to better target the right fit for the role while also more clearly signaling to the new hire what is required of them to be successful. This increases internal transparency generally, and clarity of purpose for the new leader and the people they’ll be directly working with specifically.

One final note: the best leadership in organisations is often the result of leadership teams, not just individuals, who work together to fill in gaps in the organisation and boost each other’s strengths. In other words, if you’re depending on just one person to “lead”, you’re already in real trouble. As your organisation’s situation changes, whether that’s your internal staffing or new trends in the wider industry, the types of leaders you’ll need will change, too. Keep asking yourself the above questions whenever a new leadership position comes open and you’re likely to keep your organisation fully equipped with the right leaders at the right time.