Managing Effectively in a Matrix
August 14, 2012 Editor 0
What if you upgraded your IT network to a new operating system that promised faster, better and leaner results — only to find that the vast majority of your leaders did not have the necessary competencies to use that new system?
At Hay Group, our research suggests that many companies are now stuck in that metaphorical boat. Determined to get closer to their customers and become more agile and innovative, global organizations like IBM and GE are embracing the matrix organizational model. But, the transition to this new model has not been all smooth sailing. In matrix organizations, leaders suddenly find themselves having to master the challenges of managing cross-divisional, international teams over whom they have little formal authority. Not surprisingly, the skills required to effectively navigate the matrix are different than those needed to succeed in the old, hierarchical organizational model. Leaders who lack these skills often find these roles frustrating or draining, as they have to continually influence and work through others to get things done.
To uncover the competencies required to achieve results within the matrix, we conducted interviews with dozens of leaders from around the world who were accountable for results but did not have formal authority over the resources needed to achieve those results, which is a fairly common matrix scenario. We compared scenarios where leaders successfully delivered business results to those where leaders were less successful. We found that when leaders were successful in matrix roles they consistently used the following four competencies: empathy, conflict management, influence and self-awareness.
Influence and conflict management capabilities help leaders to build consensus around a common purpose and deliver the collaborative solutions that the matrix requires. Empathy, on the other hand, enables leaders to develop a better understanding of their counterparts’ perspectives and their customers’ mindset. Self-awareness allows leaders to summon the patience to manage the complexities of the matrix.
However, knowing the skills that are required is not enough. The challenge organizations now face is finding leaders who have them. According to our Emotional and Social Competency Inventory (ESCI), an emotional intelligence database based on more than 17,000 individuals worldwide, these capabilities are in short supply.
Just how scarce are matrix-related leadership skills? An analysis of our ESCI database found that only 9% of employees consistently demonstrated self-awareness — an essential competency for succeeding in the matrix. Empathy (22%) and influence skills (20%) were also seen as a strength among only a small percentage of leaders, and conflict management, while more common, was only prevalent among less than one-third (31%) of the individuals in our database.
How can organizations get a handle on this problem and strengthen their processes for developing leaders who are well-equipped for the matrix?
1. Ensure that teams are more diverse. Diversity can play an important role in helping people to develop matrix-related competencies, such as the ability to listen with respect to different viewpoints.
2. Create enterprise-level training programs. Give young leaders a chance to shadow top-level executives. Even if the trainees only get a chance to carry the CEO’s briefcase, they will still gain an enterprise-wide perspective while getting invaluable exposure to a selection of business leaders from throughout the company.
3. Implement rotational assignments. Give high-potential rising stars opportunities to work in different functional areas of the company. A leader who spends his or her career stuck in a single function or business unit will have an insular perspective that is a poor fit with the needs and challenges of the matrix.
4. Facilitate different types of leadership experiences. Give mid-level leaders a chance to take on advisory roles outside of line management in functions such as strategy, HR or finance. By playing the role of project manager in a situation where they have little direct authority over their team members, they can gain valuable experience learning how to get results in a matrix-type environment.
Meanwhile, for leaders accustomed to the old hierarchical order who now find themselves at sea in the matrix with little guidance on how to survive, here are four quick tips to minimize the likelihood of capsizing:
• Identify competency gaps and correct them. Empathy, conflict management, influence and self-awareness are all capabilities that can be improved with coaching, training and lots of practice. If you suspect you need help in one or more of these areas, take a proactive approach and start looking for ways to develop and sharpen these skills. And don’t be afraid to ask for feedback on where you may have gaps.
• Don’t try to use hierarchy or pull rank to resolve an issue. That may work in command-and-control line organizations, but it’s less effective in a matrix where you have less formal authority over your team members, some of whom may be peers.
• Resist the urge to escalate problems to senior management. Matrix teams depend on trust and teamwork. Our research shows that escalating issues to the CEO often backfires and can doom matrix projects. Instead, look for ways to use empathetic listening and conflict management resolution skills to show team members how the enterprise-wide goals of the matrix ultimately align with their own interests.
• Deal with emotionally-charged communications face-to-face, never through email. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating — email and text messaging lack nuance and can often be misinterpreted in the worst possible way, destroying the trust upon which matrix teams depend. Pick up the phone, walk down the hall or boot up Skype for a face-to-face dialogue. Trying to express empathy through an emoticon smiley-face is just asking for trouble.
The skills needed for a leader to thrive in a matrix operating environment — empathy, conflict management, influence and self-awareness — can be identified, developed and honed. The real question is whether organizations and individual leaders will take the initiative to broaden their traditional notions of what it takes to succeed as a leader and start taking a closer look at measuring, cultivating and rewarding these crucial matrix-related leadership capabilities.
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