In today's complex and fast-paced business environment, leaders must be able to effectively collaborate across organizational silos and boundaries to drive success. Cross-silo leadership refers to the ability to exert influence and lead initiatives beyond the scope of one's formal authority or position. Developing strong cross-silo leadership capabilities has become imperative for organizations looking to break down barriers, increase connectivity, and leverage diverse skillsets to innovate and solve problems.
Today we will explore cross-silo leadership and detail specific strategies and examples for cultivating this critical leadership approach.
Understanding Cross-Silo Leadership
Cross-silo leadership aims to break down the metaphorical organizational "silos" that limit information sharing, alignment, and productivity between departments, teams, and leaders. Silos emerge naturally as organizations grow larger and more complex. While specialization and structure provide needed efficiency and focus, the downsides of excessive siloization include:
Lack of visibility into broader organizational priorities and strategies
Information hoarding and poor collaboration between teams
Duplication of efforts due to poor coordination
Inability to leverage expertise and resources across the organization
Cross-silo leaders actively work to prevent or overcome these pitfalls by developing connections, facilitating collaboration, and driving strategic alignment across functional boundaries. They provide a unifying vision that transcends narrow departmental interests. Critical skills and mindsets of cross-silo leaders include:
Systems thinking - understanding the interdependencies between teams and how the pieces fit together into the larger organizational puzzle.
Influencing without authority - leveraging soft power and relationship building to motivate cooperation.
Stakeholder engagement - proactively building partnerships and networks across the organization.
Communication - translating complex concepts and breaking down jargon across audiences.
Problem-solving - bringing diverse groups together to diagnose issues and co-create solutions.
Strategies for Developing Cross-Silo Leadership
How can organizations and leaders cultivate these critical cross-silo leadership capabilities? Some key strategies include:
Foster Enterprise Thinking
Rotate high-potential leaders across key roles, functions, and locations to build organizational acumen and networks.
Include department stakeholders when setting strategy for another department. This builds empathy and understanding of interconnections.
Develop enterprise-level strategy with multi-disciplinary input to reinforce system-wide thinking.
Encourage Boundary Spanning Roles
Create positions like Chief of Staff, Head of Strategy, or Integration Leads that oversee collaboration across silos.
Incentivize leaders to take on cross-departmental projects, committees, and task forces.
Populate projects and initiatives with team members from different departments.
Provide Training and Development
Train leaders on influencer skills, stakeholder mapping, cross-functional team leadership, and strategic communication.
Offer job shadowing and short-term rotations to help leaders experience other functions firsthand.
Build cross-silo leadership into leadership competency models and assessment centers.
Promote Collaborative Technology
Invest in centralized databases, communication, and project management tools accessible across the organization.
Use interactive sites like Yammer or Slack to increase informal knowledge sharing.
Reinforce Cross-Silo Leadership
Highlight and reward examples of collaborative leadership.
Assess cross-silo leadership ability in performance management and succession planning.
Ensure organizational changes and new initiatives emphasize cross-functional alignment.
Examples of Cross-Silo Leadership Success
Cross-silo leadership delivers tangible benefits when implemented effectively. Here are a few examples:
Developed a dedicated "Integration Manager" role to drive collaboration and knowledge sharing on strategic projects across brands and functions.
Reported elimination of redundancies and faster, more coordinated product development cycles as a result.
Structured its organization around cross-functional product teams versus traditional departments to improve innovation and speed to market.
Iconic innovations like the iPhone and iPad emerged from close collaborations between design, engineering, operations, and marketing leaders.
Broke down silos between doctors, hospitals, and insurance by integrating all capabilities under one unified structure and strategy.
Cross-silo alignment between clinicians and administrators enables smoother patient experiences and lower costs.
Cross-silo leadership represents an essential capability for today's complex, matrixed organizations. By proactively building connections across functional boundaries, facilitating collaboration, and providing unifying vision, cross-silo leaders can help organizations capitalize on their full potential. Developing and supporting leaders with these critical skills promises to be a key imperative for organizational agility and performance going forward.
Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.