Cross-Silo Leadership


Though most executives recognize the importance of breaking down silos to help people collaborate across boundaries, they struggle to make it happen. That’s understandable: It is devilishly difficult. Think about your own relationships at work—the people you report to and those who report to you, for starters. Now consider the people in other functions, units, or geographies whose work touches yours in some way. Which relationships get prioritized in your day-to-day job?


We’ve posed that question to managers, engineers, salespeople, and consultants in companies around the world. The response we get is almost always the same: vertical relationships.


But when we ask, “Which relationships are most important for creating value for customers?” the answers flip. Today the vast majority of innovation and business-development opportunities lie in the interfaces between functions, offices, or organizations. In short, the integrated solutions that most customers want—but companies wrestle with developing—require horizontal collaboration.


The value of horizontal teamwork is widely recognized. Employees who can reach outside their silos to find colleagues with complementary expertise learn more, sell more, and gain skills faster. Harvard’s Heidi Gardner has found that firms with more cross-boundary collaboration achieve greater customer loyalty and higher margins. As innovation hinges more and more on interdisciplinary cooperation, digitalization transforms business at a breakneck pace, and globalization increasingly requires people to work across national borders, the demand for executives who can lead projects at interfaces keeps rising.


Our research and consulting work with hundreds of executives and managers in dozens of organizations confirms both the need for and the challenge of horizontal collaboration. “There’s no doubt. We should focus on big projects that call for integration across practices,” a partner in a global accounting firm told us. “That’s where our greatest distinctive value is developed. But most of us confine ourselves to the smaller projects that we can handle within our practice areas. It’s frustrating.” A senior partner in a leading consulting firm put it slightly differently: “You know you should swim farther to catch a bigger fish, but it is a lot easier to swim in your own pond and catch a bunch of small fish.”


One way to break down silos is to redesign the formal organizational structure. But that approach has limits: It’s costly, confusing, and slow. Worse, every new structure solves some problems but creates others. That’s why we’ve focused on identifying activities that facilitate boundary crossing. We’ve found that people can be trained to see and connect with pools of expertise throughout their organizations and to work better with colleagues who think very differently from them. The core challenges of operating effectively at interfaces are simple: learning about people on the other side and relating to them. But simple does not mean easy; human beings have always struggled to understand and relate to those who are different.


Leaders need to help people develop the capacity to overcome these challenges on both individual and organizational levels. That means providing training in and support for four practices that enable effective interface work.


1. Develop and Deploy Cultural Brokers

Fortunately, in most companies there are people who already excel at interface collaboration. They usually have experiences and relationships that span multiple sectors, functions, or domains and informally serve as links between them. We call these people cultural brokers. In studies involving more than 2,000 global teams, one of us—Sujin—found that diverse teams containing a cultural broker significantly outperformed diverse teams without one. (See “The Most Creative Teams Have a Specific Type of Cultural Diversity,” HBR.org, July 24, 2018.) Companies should identify these individuals and help them increase their impact.