Navigating the Matrix – Who’s the Boss?

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Have you ever had the feeling that you’ve got two bosses? Maybe it’s been in your personal life, where your partner insisted on one approach but your teenager had an entirely different idea about how things should be done when it comes to vacation plans or use of the family car. You want to meet the needs of both despite these wildly differing expectations. Who do you report to?

Many of us have had similar experiences in the workplace. A key client of yours asks for specific adjustments in a product or service, for instance, while your executive sponsor indicates it just isn’t possible given other priorities or relationships. Or you’re providing internal services to an operating business unit and your boss sets performance parameters regarding deliverables that differ from your internal client’s expectations.

managing multiple bossesDuring a recent narrative 360 engagement, I had the opportunity to see this play out big time in a company that utilized a matrix structure to formalize these dual reporting relationships. In theory, this approach strengthens cross-functional relationships, reduces duplication, encourages cost savings and creates a tighter bond between a service unit (e.g., procurement, finance, IT, legal) and the operating business units.

In reality, however, it can lead to real challenges for the person reporting to multiple supervisors. This is especially true if those supervisors have varying perceptions regarding the individual’s job requirements, key priorities and performance expectations. It’s even more challenging when the leaders have competing visions of the business itself.

If you’re a supervisor who has a direct-report employee working within these matrix-type relationships, it’s essential that you:

  1. Clarify and confirm the employee’s role, major responsibilities and key priorities in a joint conversation with other leaders who provide oversight and direction. Include your employee in this discussion so everyone gains clarity and there’s some ‘muscle’ built in terms of hosting these types of conversations.
  2. Review emerging goals, priorities and work plans with other leaders as they’re established for your employee. Resolve differences at this point, rather than waiting until problems emerge and the work is well underway. Be sure to put clear and transparent monitoring and reporting in place so that each leader is aware of progress.
  3. Confirm how conflicting or competing priorities, originating from the different supervisors, will be effectively resolved. It’s unfair and ineffective for the employee to try and mediate significant differences between multiple leaders. Your direct and timely engagement in resolving these issues is critical.
  4. Host regular discussions, with the employee and their other supervisors, regarding the employee’s professional development and career progression. Development priorities will be influenced, not just by your perceptions, but also by other leaders who may see your employee in unique contexts and with differing stakeholders
  5. performance feedback reviewConfirm the performance review process and metrics with both your employee and other involved leaders. Ensure you provide regular performance feedback during the year and regularly touch base with your colleagues regarding how they perceive your employee’s performance as well.

A matrix-based approach can be highly beneficial and make good sense given the specific business context. To ensure success, however, this type of leadership model must embed essential elements to support employees, including clarifying and confirming roles and key priorities; regularly revisiting agreed-upon commitments; establishing mechanisms to resolve misaligned or competing interests between leaders; ensuring continued coaching, mentoring and professional development; and setting in place agreed-upon performance measures and regular meaningful feedback.

About The Author

Scott Borland, Founder & President of CYGNUS Management Consultants Inc, , is a recognized expert in helping executives host strategic conversations and obtain high impact feedback. He brings insightful perspective and proven strategies to strengthen the alignment between strategy and leadership behaviour. Scott has presented frequently at regional/national conferences and is a regular contributor to online journals/blogs. Follow Scott on Twitter or add him as a connection on LinkedIn.

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