Matrix management often gets criticized for increasing complexity. Accountability without control, influence without authority and multiple team membership does have its challenges; but it looks like being exposed to these is the secret of a successful leadership career.
A recent Harvard business review article quotes a Deloitte study of executives from more than 2,000 organisations. They studied the impact of different management practices on leadership development and business performance.
The number two factor (after focusing on culture) was a belief in matrix management. They found that by increasing collaboration across boundaries the matrix taught leaders how to collaborate horizontally, build networks, move from role to role, and build depth of understanding across the business.
In our own research we found that building broader people capability is one of the top five reasons why organisations introduce a matrix structure.
A Gallup survey in November 2015 found that the more people were matrixed – the more they had multiple reporting lines and the more they worked on multiple virtual teams – the higher their levels of engagement.
Recent studies have also focused on the value of a multi-functional move to individuals careers.
- A study by LinkedIn How to become an executive looked at the career paths of about 64,000 members who had reached senior executive level. They found that changing jobs across functions “provides the well-rounded understanding of business operations that are needed to become an executive”. They found that each additional job function provides a boost that’s, on average, equal to three years of work experience.
- In The New Path To the C-Suite The authors quote findings from Heidrick and Struggles, the top head-hunters, that once people reach the C-suite, technical and functional expertise matter less than leadership skills and a strong grasp of business fundamentals
The most senior leaders need a general understanding of the business rather than just deep functional expertise.
So it seems that matrix management increases engagement, career success and leadership capability, leading to improved business performance.
When we introduce matrix management, we create more complex middle management roles. Middle managers need to resolve complex trade-offs and dilemmas between different reporting lines. They need to reach outside their silos and build new networks and new skills to get things done. They need to influence their peers more effectively.
These are precisely the skills that senior leaders need. The matrix means that we are asking our middle managers to behave in the way our executives have long been used to.
It is unsurprising then that experience in the middle of the matrix equips people better for executive positions.
As organisations become more connected, more complex and more integrated it is very likely that these skills will become even more essential to success at middle and senior levels.
I am a huge believer in cross functional moves, having been lucky enough to move from HR into manufacturing, then finance and business planning and back into HR before starting my own business. The periods around these functional moves were definitely the most intense learning experiences of my corporate career.
So, if you want to be a future executive and you want to build valuable skills – embrace the complexity and ambiguity of the matrix.
If you want the skills to help you do this, take a look at our website.