Companies Need Global Change Agents

March 19, 2015
For breakthrough results, companies need leaders who don't protect boundaries but rather bust and transcend them.

A few days ago I met with the management of a successful and expanding pharmaceutical company to discuss their leadership challenges. Their primary challenge, paradoxically, is growth. They have increased their product range fivefold over the past two years and are expanding into new markets around the world.

They are now truly a global company with extraordinary opportunities before them, and this has implications for how they lead. They have the brain power to be a great company, but they now must build their leadership power. Their core strengths have been in execution and implementation through talented management and sound work processes, but these strengths are insufficient to produce breakthrough results in a more complex, interdependent and global context. They now must break from their habitual ways of operating and bring all available resources to bear to become more responsive, innovative and creative.

The kind of leadership this company needs, and many others like them, is not traditional big man leadership that relies on prominence (“look to me”), dominance (“listen to me”) and tribalizing (“follow me”) to get things done, but leaders who are global change agents, men and women who can act with or without formal positional authority to mobilize diverse factions to face reality, participate in interdependent problem-solving, and contribute to innovative solutions with focus and speed. Big man leaders operate within the boundaries—they protect boundaries and manage boundaries, while global change agents lead by 1) crossing boundaries, 2) busting boundaries, 3) transcending boundaries, and 4) building bridges. Let me explain.

Crossing boundaries is about crossing the cultural, gender, geographic, structural and professional boundaries that separate people and groups. Interdependent problems necessitate that multiple groups in a social system be mobilized as problems cannot be brought to resolution by one group acting alone or in isolation. Leadership, therefore, must be exercised not just into your own group, but into various groups and factions connected to the challenge. I recently met with some managers of a large, multinational Silicon Valley IT company. They explained how a group of senior managers in the headquarters was reluctant to cross boundaries and connect with important regional and international offices to include them in key problem-solving processes. Protecting turf and resources had become more important to them than promoting interdependent problem-solving.

Busting boundaries, the second capacity for global change agents, requires intervening to break up maladaptive practices and counterproductive boundaries that perpetuate silos and tribalism. Groups by nature are tribal and seek to preserve their prevailing boundaries, even at the expense of facing reality and adapting to changed conditions. Boundaries play an important function in protecting groups and sustaining a group culture. A boundary, however, becomes an impediment when it reduces the flow of information and resources and keeps people from facing changed conditions, dealing with threats, and taking advantage of unique and emerging opportunities.

For example, in 2014 General Motors (IW 500/5) CEO Mary Barra was called before Congress to explain how a faulty ignition switch led to numerous accidents and more than 2.6 million vehicles being recalled. She made reference to an independent analysis which revealed that GM had serious cultural flaws such as the withholding of (and even the distortion of) information, and the “GM nod” and the “GM salute.” The “nod” was used by managers to indicate they agreed there was a problem but there would be no intention to follow through. The “salute” was the crossing of the arms followed by a finger pointing outward to divert responsibility elsewhere. People hid behind their boundaries and perpetuated counterproductive behaviors. These practices threatened the company’s credibility, profitability, and customer safety. There was insufficient change agent leadership at all levels of the organization to call attention to the maladaptive practices and bust the boundaries that had produced the errors.

Transcending boundaries, the third capacity for change agents, is about helping people leave the safety and confines of their home boundary and embark on an adventure of discovery—the discovery of new solutions and opportunities. The adventure might require going into the great unknown in search of creativity and innovation through the engagement of diverse people and groups. Diversity of perspectives, experience, style and culture can be a rich resource for the promotion of creative problem-solving.

The global change agent, like an alchemist, approaches the challenge by experimenting to discover what the appropriate mix of diversity might be in order to generate a breakthrough result.

—Dean Williams

However, harnessing the power of diversity is problematic. The default behavior of groups is fundamentally tribal as people generally prefer their own kind and find it difficult interacting with those who are significantly different—it takes effort. The global change agent, like an alchemist, approaches the challenge by experimenting to discover what the appropriate mix of diversity might be in order to generate a breakthrough result. In the context of the pharmaceutical company mentioned at the beginning of the article, scientists, engineers, managers and sales staff from different cultural and professional environments must now work together for product development, supply chain innovation, and marketing and distribution in ways they have never done before. This is a unique adventure that requires leaving the orderly and familiar world that they have become quite comfortable operating in and traversing into unfamiliar territory with no guarantee of success but the possibility of great gains.

Building bridges, the fourth capacity for global change agents, requires reducing the mystery or enmity between groups on behalf of a shared sense of purpose. Humans are fragile creatures, but also competitive creatures. Their feelings easily get hurt, and like chimpanzees they seem to enjoy political game playing and the creation of coalitions to advance the interests of their faction, often at the expense of others. This leads to fractures in groups and organizations—deep divides and hairline fractures which can expand at any time—where people refuse to collaborate and actively sabotage the intentions of others.

The change agent helps groups build bridges of trust and understanding, reduce the mystery of who they are for one another, and establish a connection that opens up a new possibility for shared accomplishment. This is what Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon did in 1972 when they visited China and started the bridge-building process that led to a significant thawing of, and eventual end to, the cold-war relationship that did little good for either country.

To be a global change agent and provide leadership for interdependent challenges, you must expand your personal boundaries—mental, cultural, and experiential. You cannot simply be a tribal representative or traditional manager but must seek to be global in mindset and practice. Mentally, you must develop the capacity to see the complexity of social systems and to be more at ease in messy, shifting and even chaotic environments. Culturally, you should try to understand the cultural baggage that you bring to the interactions with other groups, as you do not want to be accused of being an arrogant crusader or ugly imperialist that imposes their values on others—insensitively and disrespectfully. And you must be curious about the culture of other groups to appreciate why they do what they do and what sacred values inform their behavior. Experientially, you need to pursue boundary-expanding experiences by putting yourself in demanding and challenging situations that are disorienting but developmental.

Becoming a global change agent is not easy, but it is essential work that companies must encourage and nurture. They neglect this work at their own peril.

Dean Williams is the author of the newly released book Leadership for a Fractured World and teaches leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He can be reached at [email protected].

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