Tips for Succeeding as a Matrix Leader

Leading and managing in complex organisations, such a matrix or a large global organisation, can be frustrating at the best of times. There’s no need to sugarcoat the fact that such environments aren’t always the easiest in which to succeed.  Dual reporting lines that have competing interests, dealing with silo’s and wading through politics that would sometimes make the most hardened politician break down, are all points of frustration for matrix and global leaders. All of this can lead to the feeling that you are part of a large cumbersome machine.

The good news is that there are those who do succeed, and sometimes thrive, in such settings.  Have they worked out a formula for success?  Or do they simply have the right personality to succeed in the midst of complexity.

After having coached, consulted to and worked with mid-level leaders through to C-level executives, across five continents over the last 14 years, my view is that it takes a good dose of both elements.   

On the one hand, I’ve experienced those leaders who have found a formula for achieving their tasks in face of competing priorities and politics. The bad news for them is that they don’t have the resilience or political nous required to enjoy and optimise their role.  On the flip side I’ve worked with others who don’t necessarily have a formula or process for task success, rather they have great political nous and a knack for connecting and creating networks.  The good news for these leaders is that they create a strong sense of connection and support for them as a person, though their performance in the role suffers simply because they haven’t been able to fully achieve what the role demanded.  

So what’s the balance?  When I reflect on these experiences, there doesn’t seem to be a balance as such; and when I work with leaders and groups in this environment the focus often drifts towards searching for a balance.  Rather, there are a handful of key activities that if adopted, create a platform upon which the leader is able to work in a more balanced way.  I’ve captured these key activities below: 

They Adapt to the Structure
Traditional hierarchical structure thinking and behaviours (command and control) just don’t work in a matrix, and these people get this.  They may not fully grasp the structure that surrounds them, especially if they are new to the business.  However they still find a way of building an informal network that will support them and their team in achieving their goals until they get their head around the formal structure. 

They Create a Support Network
Leading on from the previous point, those who achieve success don’t do it alone!  They identify very early the value of an informal network of internal coaches, mentors and friends from different parts of the organisation.  It’s not unusual for these people to be recognized when they walk through the shop floor or when they head to the finance department.  Their relationships are reciprocal and based on more than just, ‘can you tell me’.  You may think that it looks like a benign coffee that the ‘connected leader’ is taking with that guy who works in the accounts payable department; but you can be assured that she now knows more about what it takes to get one of her suppliers invoices paid quickly, as well as having a colleague who is more than just another stranger in the elevator each morning.

They Ask Questions and Seek to Understand (Not to be understood)
These people remove as much ambiguity as they can by seeking to understand why things are the way they are, and aim to remove the shroud of mystery.  They know that the first step towards success is not to try and force your way of thinking on to others, rather, they listen, and seek to create a shared solution.  Chances are that if you listen well, you’ll be asked to share your thoughts in return.  Role model the type of interaction you would like to receive. A great bi-product of this is that a strong rapport is built that reduces the impact or presence of silo’s. 

They Don’t Assume that Their Dual Reporting Lines are Aligned
If you have two or more upward reporting lines, don’t be afraid to organise a regular catch up on the topic of alignment.   They make the issue of alignment explicit and get the objectives of each reporting line on the table.  Every time I’ve facilitated this occurrence, either for myself or others, it is an eye-opener!  Importantly though, a 30 minute conversation on the topic of alignment can prevent the many hours of frustration that comes with trying to balance competing interests.  Simply put; you are one person.  Where and how you invest your energy is critical and if those above you aren’t aligned in what they want from you, then it makes sense that your performance will be diluted accordingly.

They Don’t Become a Politician…But they are Aware of the Politics
By taking care of the above point, you can reduce the impact of politics; however the larger and more complex the organisation, the more prevalent the politics.  Those who have genuine success in complex environments don’t necessarily buy into the politics.  That’s not to say they will completely avoid getting stuck in a political game every now and then, the reality is that this is likely to occur from time to time.  But they are able to see the politics for what it is, and ‘work the sideline’.  This means that they are almost like the political journalist who can see what’s happening, try to make sense of why it’s happening and is able to report on it from the sideline.  In an organisational context you can also work the sideline.  Observe the politicking; remembering you don’t have to choose sides.  If you observe closely what is being played out you can make a more informed decision around how you choose to connect with those stuck in the games rather than feel as though you are being helplessly sucked into the political vortex!  

There’s one other thing about these people; and that’s their level of resilience.  I’ve discussed this previously, and can’t highlight enough the importance of being flexible in your approach whilst at the same time being continually mindful of your situation and being prepared to adapt at short notice.

Leading and managing in a complex environment takes some skill, and discipline.  But it doesn’t need to be made more difficult than it possibly already is.  Take some time out to think about the ways that you can adopt any of these points, or refine them if you already do them. 

Ponte Valle Insight: Tips for Succeeding as a Matrix Leader

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