Since Confederation 140 years ago, Prime Ministers – from Sir John A. MacDonald, to Sir Wilfred Laurier to Jean Chrétien – have observed that “Canada is a very difficult country to govern,” with a complexity of issues, interests, competing forces, stakeholders, media, special-interest groups, and multiple levels of government.
Although the scope and magnitude may differ, I believe that all leaders face a difficult job today; one that is becoming increasingly complex. Two years ago, our team at the Ivey School of Business set out to examine the new and emerging challenges leaders face today. After extensive research, analysis and consultation around the globe, we uncovered a deep-seated need, in all types of organizations, public and private, for a new brand of leadership.
The CEOs and public sector leaders we spoke with told us they want more than managers who simply operate well within functional areas, such as marketing, finance, public policy or program development. Indeed, they need leaders with a rich understanding of how events, decisions and actions affect the “enterprise” – of the rich complexity of interdependencies both within the organization and between the organization and the environment in which it operates. This network of relationships – this enterprise – is both influenced by and has an impact on an organization. It is fundamentally changing the leadership dynamic.
It has also magnified the leadership challenge. The issues facing leaders in any enterprise are multi-dimensional in nature and wide-ranging in their import – globalization, competition, technology. None of these fit into tidy boxes.
Consider globalization. It isn’t simply a challenge for business, nor just for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. It affects all governments, all departments, at all levels. The world’s knowledge workers are more mobile than ever before. Consequently, as Dr. Linda Duxbury of Carleton University noted recently in this publication, they compete with the Australian government, the European Union, the United Nations and various agencies in addition to the domestic private and NGO sectors. This competition is accelerating. A wave of baby boomers will soon retire. This challenge is daunting for all organizations, but it is especially alarming for governments.
We call the new model Cross-Enterprise Leadership. But how does the concept apply to public service leaders? First, it requires leaders to think from a cross-enterprise perspective. In other words, it demands a shift from focusing on the organization to concentrating on the entire enterprise – the full scope of the interconnected relationships that exist across the organization and between the organization and other organizations, sectors, geographies and cultures.
Leaders today must fully understand what is happening both inside and outside their organizations. That requires leaders to step outside of their comfort zones – to consult widely across the organization and to gather intelligence from their network of contacts outside the organization.
This will not be easy for government leaders, just as it is not easy for university and business leaders. We all tend to operate in silos. At Ivey, we have faculties in marketing, accounting, organizational behaviour and so on. In government, there are different ministries, such as health, transportation, environment. Traditionally, there has been little interaction among these different disciplines and departments. But that is changing. There are more government-wide initiatives underway today than ever before. Inter-governmental partnerships as well as government and industry task forces are becoming increasingly common. To add value to their organizations, government leaders must be able to look beyond the organizational charts, knowledge silos and the walls of their organizations. That is the only way they can see, know and understand the full scope of opportunities and challenges facing their organizations.
Second, cross-enterprise leadership compels leaders to act – and to act quickly. To keep government operating smoothly in the past, actions usually followed a slow, evolutionary path. Decisions were made and change took place in a systematic and incremental way. But in today’s unpredictable environment of shrinking budgets, demands for better service, and greater accountability, playing it safe or taking it slow just doesn’t make sense.
The good news is that by thinking in a cross-enterprise way, leaders will be better able to anticipate future challenges and potential opportunities. The bad news is that leaders can no longer afford the luxury of long planning horizons. In this era of instant communications and rapid technological change, real-time action is the new reality.
It is not just the pace of change, but also the uncertainty that must be addressed. Leaders can no longer act like a conductor guiding the musicians in an orchestra, where the score is set and each player knows exactly what notes to play and when to play them. Instead, leaders have to think and act more like jazz musicians, where the music is improvised and creativity is not only encouraged, but rewarded.
Third, cross-enterprise leadership is fundamentally changing the way that leaders lead. In a fluid, dynamic environment, no single leader can “manage” the enterprise. Therefore, leadership must be distributed. In this context, the old hierarchical command and control approach simply doesn’t work any more.
More and more, leaders must depend on their influence, not on the power of their position. As a result, leaders must develop an acute understanding of the positions of various stakeholders within their enterprise, including their employees. They must be capable of identifying potential partners, of initiating and maintaining relationships, of resolving conflicts, and reconfiguring their relationships. Furthermore, they must be comfortable dealing with ambiguity, uncertainty, complexity, and time-pressures while leveraging these relationships.
Above all, they must be willing to give up some of their control. That’s because leading cross-enterprise is not only necessary for those at the top of the organization. It is even more essential for employees within the lower levels of the organization. Employees come into contact with clients and other external stakeholders every day. Collectively, they have the details about what is happening within the enterprise, how clients, partners and stakeholders are acting and reacting; what strategies and activities are working and which ones are not.
To tap into this wealth of information, leaders have to encourage their employees to work laterally across the organization, and to collaborate with others in the higher levels of the organization. This is an arduous task in the politically charged environments characteristic of public organizations. Turf protection and power issues will inevitably arise. But, no leader can simply change a long-held mindset or transform the way people work by telling them to do it. A leader has to continually influence that process by giving up some executive control and power. They have to learn to trust their employees as never before.
In short, thinking, acting and leading in the cross-enterprise way are not for the faint of heart. Thinking cross-enterprise requires leaders to anticipate potential changes in the enterprise, to see emerging patterns and to fully sense a situation in all its intricacy. To act effectively