The top 5 matrix leadership skills

With over 90 percent of the FTSE 50 and Fortune 50 companies now operating in matrix structure, matrix leadership skills are in high demand

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Among the top 5 matrix leadership skills, Tim Mitchell - a Director for Global Integration - counts the ability to communicate through technology, and the ability to learn from others

According to recent research by Global Integration, a specialist training provider for matrix, virtual and global organisations, 90 percent of the FTSE 50 and Fortune 50 companies operate in matrix structure and explicitly ask for experience of working within a matrix in their executive recruitment ads.  It therefore stands to reason that providing evidence of success and skills in matrix management is likely to be of significant advantage in rising to the top.  So what are these matrix leadership skills and how can we identify them? Tim Mitchell, a Director for Global Integration, takes a look at this.

The old fashioned command and control hierarchy is diminishing rapidly in today’s business world

Matrix organisations are the consequence of a long-term trend over the last 40 years towards a more integrated and truly global delivery. However, this integration also leads to a corresponding increase in both complexity and risk. For example, there is an ongoing trend in the construction and engineering industry for the provision of integrated Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) services. Previously, each of these segments was often run as a separate activity, frequently by different companies, and if one part was faulty, the issue was pushed back to the individual supplier. Now, it’s everyone’s problem so companies need to get it right at each stage.

As a result, whilst collaboration has been an organisational value that companies have advocated for years, in a matrix it can be far more complex, with multiple bosses, cross functional working, competing goals, and accountability without control. Organisations can maximise the likelihood of success by recruiting, rewarding and promoting based on these skills.

Where do you need to focus?
Identify which groups and functions within your company are most impacted by this change and thus have the greatest need for the right skills. We call this the ‘Matrix Middle’. These individuals have to reconcile implementation of the strategic vision with the needs of the local business units and are therefore most affected by the matrix. They are often those in functional or shared services (eg HR, Finance or Supply Chain) or in integrated sales roles. 

Matrix leadership skills
Organisations have traditionally prioritised individual technical skills and personal experience when recruiting or promoting. Successful leaders in the Matrix Middle must also have the right soft skills and mindset. Here are the five areas of soft skill expertise that will demonstrate the capacity to be effective in a matrix leadership role:

1. Learning from others
If you’re running projects that require a much higher degree of integration and expertise, the ability to enable others to share their expertise and take ownership for their own activities is essential. Candidates need to demonstrate a positive attitude towards learning from others, rather than simply focusing on their own direct skills and experience.

Test for this by asking; ‘What did you learn in your current role?  What might you need to learn about how to be effective in your new role and how do you plan to do this?’

2. Communicating through technology
In a matrix, we’re often working with colleagues without being face to face, so the ability to communicate effectively via technology is key. Some of our clients conduct initial interviews by phone to test this. Others ask candidates to present using web meeting tools. Candidates need to be able to project themselves and engage others through technology, rather than face to face.

This is not simply the capacity to process and distribute large quantities of e-mail or attend hours of conference calls.

3. Engaging and listening to others
Matrix leaders frequently have to engage resources and individuals that they have no direct control over and to leverage the expertise of those in functions or roles they personally have little direct knowledge of. Check for the ability to both engage and listen to others.

Ask candidates to describe how they plan, facilitate and follow up a regular team meeting. What is significant here is to assess what the leader is doing at each stage versus what the participants are doing. If all the attendees have to do is show up and then take away assigned actions, it is a good insight into their relative level of engagement.

4. Empowering others
A key tenet for moving faster in a global environment is building capability closer to where the problems are; Being able to coach and empower others to solve their own problems is a primary attribute for matrix leaders, so look for ways to measure their ability to develop or leverage the skills of others.

5. Connectedness to the broader business
Matrix leaders need to be able to step out of their own silos and see the bigger picture. Reducing risk is about learning from others and also understanding the potential impact of your own activities on other parts of the business. The wider the level of connections and visibility that people have within the business, combined with their ability to build and maintain informal internal and external networks, the broader the perspective they will have.

The old fashioned command and control hierarchy is diminishing rapidly in today’s business world. As companies race to the top rather than the bottom of the value chain, working in some form of integrated organisational structure or matrix is a reflection of this ambition, so we need to recognise and plan for this.

A modern generation of business leader needs to be able respond to this change by understanding the big or “One Company’ picture, controlling closer to the action by empowering others, leading by example, and helping individuals to remain focused and confident in an ambiguous and constantly changing business environment. Recruiting and promoting leaders based on the ability to effectively drive and model these behaviours will exponentially increase our chances of success.

About Tim Mitchell
Tim Mitchell is a Director for Global Integration, a specialist training and consultancy provider for matrix, virtual and global organisations that has worked with more than a third of the Fortune and FTSE 50 companies.  His business career has included finance and commercial roles in the aerospace and oil industries, based in the UK and throughout Asia, and today he offers training and consultancy around the World.