No Organization Is Immune From Blurred Boundaries

As senior leadership, we can always count on our daily dosage of problems and challenges; it’s part of the job!  It doesn’t help much though when some of those problems and challenges are of our own making, especially those resulting from blurred boundaries.  Seems like a subtle concept when you hear it said for the first time but it’s real, and we all can cite personal examples.

A few from my own novice years:

• As the newly hired president of a manufacturing company, I spent the first three or four months of my tenure observing, measuring and evaluating the effectiveness of each functional area. When I felt I had sufficient information to act, I advised a VP of manufacturing that he was not suited for the job and could be a far better contributor by moving into a staff R&D role. His response was aggressive, ‘how can you do that to me, we’ve been such good friends?’ I owned that response; from the beginning I had treated him like a peer and allowed the boundaries of authority to be blurred.

• Less provocative, at a social function for company management, the spouse of an executive relentlessly complained to me that her husband needed a new company car; the one he was assigned was not appropriate. I owned that response too; I had blurred the boundaries by (subconsciously) hoping to be liked and thought of as a peer without putting respect first.

And from my client experiences:

• The president and VP of sales had become fast friends, travelling on business frequently together, often with side trips ranging from skiing to racing to attending professional sporting events. The VP was perceived by his peers as having special status, sometimes supporting them, sometimes not.  Under the surface was the VP’s ‘unbecoming’ conduct; he frequently acted inappropriately with women in the organization. This behavior was reported and documented to the president and met with the response—‘I’ll talk to him.’  Not much changed and the matter escalated.  The VP eventually resigned and shortly thereafter the president left involuntarily. Blurred boundaries that couldn’t be rebuilt.

• A multi-hundred million dollar enterprise, this time a president and an SVP. At least once daily and often times more, the president would refer to the fact that the SVP had become his best and most trusted friend. There were no boundaries between the two and the SVP had far more ‘currency’ than any of the other SVPs though the others had responsibilities and profit performance at least four to five times greater. To everyone’s surprise, the SVP resigned.  Noted through audit not long hereafter, the SVP had departed with a significant amount of real ‘currency.’ Costly blurred boundaries.

The awareness I developed from these experiences helped me to effectively verbalize similar issues faced by many of the entrepreneurs/CEOs I served. In fact, more often than not, I became the surrogate tool that reconstructed those blurred boundaries e.g. ‘Fred thinks we should…and I can’t say I disagree,’ Fred feels it’s important that you…,’ even to the point of shortening some careers.

It may be more of a risk in single location enterprises but no organization is immune.  Blurred boundaries can lead to compromised standards not equally applied and while we may like to think such circumstances go unnoticed by others—they do not. What to do:

• Be willing to stand alone.

• Command but earn…respect.

• Start with shields up. It’s much easier to lower them than to them raise them back up.

• Break ‘blurring’ patterns, slowly if possible, transitioning to avoid unnecessary conflict.

• Retain some regimen of formality even if only an annual performance assessment.

• Maintain awareness and alert others at risk.

Lesson learned.

Read more: Why You Can’t Tolerate Ambush Communications

Fred Engelfried: Fred Engelfried is Director/Chair of North Coast Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Lewis Tree Service, Inc. He has been a member of the board of directors of Lewis for over 20 years, and for 10 years prior to that worked with the company intermittently in various consulting capacities. He also is President of Market Sense Inc., a participative management firm that has served more than 100 regional clients over 35 years.