Successful Matrix Leadership: During and After Covid-19

Leading and managing in complex organisations, such a matrix or a large global organisation, can be frustrating at the best of times.   And now we throw in a new dimension, Covid-19.  As if working in a matrix didn’t have its challenges before, the addition of forced isolation and remote working does not make things easier. 
We know that in a matrix teams are typically spread out in any case; managers leading teams in different countries or sites, single teams dispersed over multiple sites or countries and teams that need to be collaborating despite distance.  So there is already a measure of tolerance that exists for life in a remote working environment.  But here’s the thing.  Life pre-Covid-19 meant that we could still come together when we needed to discuss, explore and expedite decisions.  Much of what we achieve in a matrix is done through personal interactions, influencing and optimising our connections and network. 

But in our new reality, we can’t do that as easily.  Nor in the foreseeable future.

So, what can you do to be an effective contributor or leader in a matrix organisation during these time?  Well, the truth is, you should be doing what you were doing all along!  ​

The elements that help us be successful in a matrix organisation are mostly the same for everyone who is now required to work remotely.  A couple of years back we published the top five things that go into being a successful leader in a matrix.  Today we’ve revisited these points and added a Covid-19 footnote, because whilst each element is still relevant, for all of them there is heightened sense of relevance and importance for making the matrix work in today’s circumstances, and we believe, in the post-Covid-19 era.

Adapt to the Structure

What we said then: Traditional hierarchical structure thinking and behaviours (command and control) just don’t work in a matrix, and successful matrix leaders 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. 
C-19: Apply the same principles in how you transition to remote working.  And do not underestimate the necessity and comfort that a network can bring in these times.  Also know that your team will be leaning a little more on you to know how they should be adapting and working in a remote structure.  So even if you are finding it a bit challenging possibly one of the best things you can do is create an open dialogue in the team about how you adapt together.

Create a Support Network

What we said then: 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 recognised 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.
C-19:  Do the same…except it’s a virtual coffee/connection.  You can’t physically walk to another department, but you can reach out virtually – touch base – and in these times bring a human touch to reducing the psychological distance, whilst building or maintaining a valuable connection.

Ask Questions and Seek to Understand (Not to be understood)

What we said then: Successful matrix leaders and employees 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. 
C-19:  This is of equal importance in a forced remote working situation.  In fact, your ability to listen, and listen well, is critical right now.  You need to be honing your skills that help you read between the lines, and to hear the things that aren’t said to get the full message.

Don’t Assume that Your Dual Reporting Lines are Aligned

What we said then: If you have two or more upward reporting lines, don’t be afraid to organise a regular catch up on the topic of alignment.   Successful matrix leaders 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 a real value creator.  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.
C-19:  If you weren’t doing the above point before then perhaps you should start now.  The tyranny of distance can make it easy for mis-alignment to grow unnecessarily, and you can’t be relying on your two upline managers to be talking and ensuring your priorities are aligned (it would be nice to think this was happening – but it probably isn’t).  Ensuring this alignment is in place is as important for you as it is for your direct reports – it’s hard for you to give a clear direction with confidence if you don’t possess either for yourself.

They Don’t Become a Politician…But they are Aware of the Politics

What we said then:  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!  
C-19:  There’s not too much to add here, except to remember that this continues whether you are in a face to face or remote environment.  Don’t assume that because there is distance there are no politics. Groups will still split.  People will still have agendas.  They are just played out a little bit differently.

This closing paragraph was written in the original article, and it is truer today, than it was when it was written:

There’s one other thing about successful matrix leaders; 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: Successful Matrix Leadership: During and After Covid-19

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