“Whatever you are willing to put up with is exactly what you will have.” – Anonymous
In 1987, the New Jersey State Police received a report that a hunter had died on a small patch of land jutting into the Delaware River called Finns Point, however they refused to retrieve the body.
Their reasoning? It was outside of their jurisdiction.
As it turned out, neither New Jersey nor its neighboring state Delaware were sure within which state’s boundaries the Finns Point peninsula belonged. Because neither state claimed the land, it was unmonitored and unpatrolled.
Over 30 years later, the ownership of Finns Point remains unresolved. As a result, the area has become a magnet for abandoned vehicles, garbage, and illegal activity. While this no-man’s land between the two states has become somewhat of a joke to state legislators and geography buffs, the unclear boundary has essentially rendered the land useless.
I recently met the CEO of a $100+ million firm who was having trouble achieving his goals. His problem: no boundaries. He and his team weren’t singularly focused on their execution plan because he entertained numerous distractions in the form of “shiny new projects” that seemed important but weren’t driving the business forward. This CEO had neither defined nor enforced a clear line delineating what he and his team should say “no” to.
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of a boundary is “something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent.” Clearly, they’re not only for maps!
A boundary is an expectation of when, where, and how you say “yes” or “no.” For example, the New Jersey State Police say “no” to recover a body from land outside the defined boundary of the state. As a business leader you can create boundaries that clarify how and when you expect your team to act, the scope of products and services you offer, your business model, your availability to the team, and more.
Boundaries can also be personal. For instance, consider a boundary that states you’re not going to miss any of your daughter’s softball games this season. This is a boundary of your time designed to compel you to leave the office early enough to make each game without exception.
Clear boundaries make us and our organizations better.
They can apply to you, your team, staff, customers, partners, and suppliers. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to set and enforce the right boundaries to help you achieve your goals.
Here are five areas where adding boundaries will accelerate your progress:
“Boundaries are a part of self-care. They are healthy, normal, and necessary.” – Doreen Virtue
When I launched my coaching practice, I established several boundaries around my time and availability. For example, I made a rule that I don’t schedule client time on weekends. Ever.
As a result, my coaching clients know not to ask me to schedule time on weekends. They also don’t call me on weekends unless there is an existential emergency. Has that happened on occasion? Of course. But because my clients are so clear on the boundary, if a client calls me at 5 p.m. on a Saturday I’m going to answer immediately, because I know it’s a real emergency.
This simple time-based boundary allows me to live my life my way. I can enjoy every weekend and not think about client commitments. What’s more, I return to the office every Monday refreshed and focused because my work and personal time are clearly delineated.
To set boundaries in this domain, you might make yourself available for questions during a designated chunk of time but make it clear to your staff that outside of those office hours, you are doing focused work and should not be disturbed.
Likewise, you might set boundaries with your team about working outside of business hours. The tech company Slack, for example, forbids its employees from sending any communication on nights and weekends. Its unofficial company motto is, “Work Hard and Go Home.”
If you’re not setting boundaries around your or your team’s time, other people will run your life. And likely, it won’t be in the direction you want it to run.
“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say ‘No’ to almost everything.” — Warren Buffet
Although most leaders understand the importance of a good business strategy, they don’t necessarily know what strategy is. Strategy is essentially a stated commitment of HOW you intend to execute to achieve your organization’s goals.
As such, strategy is a boundary. It delineates which activities and decisions are acceptable and, by omission, which aren’t.
The beauty of a good strategy is that it should cause you to say NO far more than you say YES. As I mentioned in the opening CEO story, leaders with unclear strategic boundaries tend to fall victim to what I call “Shiny Object Syndrome,” where they pursue new and “exciting” opportunities that arise.
Although leaders with this syndrome feel good because they’re acting “entrepreneurially,” seeing opportunities, and taking action, this approach dilutes their ability to achieve the organization’s stated objectives.
Once your firm develops a well-thought strategy, it’s your responsibility to enforce its boundaries. When new, shiny opportunities arise, evaluate whether they fit the activities articulated in your strategy.
If not, it’s a hard “no.”
“It is necessary, and even vital, to set standards for your life and the people you allow in it.” – Mandy Hale
I’ve written in the past about establishing non-negotiable terms and conditions for you and your firm. These are also boundaries that help accelerate your firm’s progress.
A leader’s number one responsibility is to point to the things that matter most. This creates clear expectations that help employees understand where to focus and how to act.
Your leadership terms and conditions might, for example, include:
Terms and conditions like these make your firm a better place to work while simultaneously improving operations and efficiency.
“[Boundaries] define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom.” – Henry Cloud
Role accountability is one of the murkiest areas I observe in almost every business. This is why I wrote an entire book on the topic.
When the boundaries of your organization’s roles aren’t clearly defined, all sorts of things can fall between the cracks. I often see role accountability so poorly defined—even in large firms—that no single person is accountable for revenue until you get to the CEO. And when you’re running a 300-person organization that’s doing north of $100 million in revenue, that’s a huge problem!
Think about your business and answer the following simple questions:
If you and your leadership team can’t answer each question with a single role, you have work to do!
Clear boundaries around role accountability are essential to create sustainable scale in any business. To get more clarity surrounding the roles in your firm, I recommend creating role accountability cards for every person in your firm, division, group, or team. This article shows you how.
“Your boundaries protect the inner core of your identity and your right to choices.” — Gerard Manley Hopkins
The final area where you should consider establishing boundaries is around behavior.
The primary method to shape behavior should be establishing your company’s core values, which are the behavioral rules leaders and managers use to establish and maintain a desired culture. This article will help you create core values for your company.
Beyond core values, some businesses also create additional behavioral boundaries in the form of an “our way” type of manifesto, outlining standard operating procedures for how the company should run. For example, an “our way” document typically includes expectations around how to communicate with each other, with customers, and with suppliers.
All of these behavioral rules and norms are boundaries because they’re expectations of behavior that you require of your staff. In the absence of that guidance, you leave everyone on the team to determine their own way of behaving, which isn’t scalable and can be extremely frustrating to managers and high performers alike.
Boundaries make us and our organizations better. But where should you begin? How do you know where you should draw your personal and organizational borders?
Start by identifying your metaphorical Finns Point. As officials in New Jersey and Delaware learned, areas of friction and conflict often highlight ill-defined boundaries.
Think about your firm and name the areas where you’re frustrated by a level of performance or certain behaviors or conditions that annoyingly persist without ever being resolved. Then consider which boundaries are missing at the root of the conflict. Odds are, they lie in one or more of the five areas I’ve outlined above.
Draw your boundaries, then communicate and enforce them, and watch as the improved clarity propels your team and your firm forward.
Upcoming Leadership Learning Events
Live Online Class – Creating a Culture of Accountability
The best strategies and market opportunities in the world mean nothing if you’re not able to execute our plans and get things done. And yet, accountability remains a recurring, frustrating issue for business leaders around the world. Organizations with an accountable culture execute smoothly and without drama, retain high performers, and have an improved sense of collaboration, accomplishment, and fun at work.
Together we will:
Expose the #1 mistake leaders make to destroy accountability and engagement
Class Date: May 31, 2023. Learn more and register!
Live Online Class – Create Independent, Empowered Employees
Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.
Together we will:
Class Date: May 25, 2023. Learn more and register!
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