Balancing generalists and specialists in the matrix organization

There have been several studies recently that reinforce the importance of multifunctional breadth in reaching the top in modern organisations. See my previous blog Matrix management is the secret to great leadership development?

Such is the complexity and integration of these organizations, that it is hard to be successful at senior levels without a broad perspective that allows you to think and lead beyond your own functional or geographic silo.

However, this does raise the question of what is the role of functional specialists at senior levels.  Do we want our head of commercial or R&D to be specialists in their craft or more generalist leaders?

There are arguments for both. Leadership, networks and breadth may indeed be more valuable at the executive level than ability to do the technical work.

On the other hand, we need executives to be able to make judgements based on technical information and to lead teams with deep specialist skills.

By establishing a layer of matrixed roles in the 2 or 3 levels below the executive we may make it almost impossible for functional specialists to progress through them. We should be making an explicit choice about out technical career paths rather than stumbling into de facto generalist executive teams.

There is also a risk that these moves are often easier to make in central functions than in functions that may be more local such as sales. Will we find it harder to develop senior sales leaders with the breadth they need to contribute as part of a matrixed executive team?

Most of my corporate career was spent with Mars Inc where I was lucky enough to be in an organisation which values and expects cross functional and international moves. I joined in HR, moved into Manufacturing operations then Finance and Business Planning and back to HR. I worked in 4 functions, 2 business units and 2 countries and got promoted 3 times in 10 years. Some of my less charitable colleagues told me they kept moving me in the hope of finding a job I could do 🙂

It was common in these roles for up to 50% of people in a function to be line managers from other functions on cross-functional moves. When I was in HR for example it meant that half of the people were technical specialists, half high calibre managers on rotation.

This was an extremely effective model which meant that a lot of managers understood HR techniques and approaches before progressing in their careers and it also improved the credibility of HR which was integral to the business.

Similarly, your HR professionals, who had a core “home” in HR would have spent at least some time in other functions building their network, business acumen and credibility.

The downside was that the core specialists had to spend more time training the generalists in basic functional excellence and I am sure we missed a few basics at times.

Speaking personally, I learned more about leadership when I moved away from my core specialism into manufacturing and had to lead engineers and production people than any other time in my career. As I was no longer a technical specialist I had to learn to contribute in different ways to add value to the organization and to my people.

As businesses become more integrated and work becomes more cross functional, we increasingly need people who can lead beyond their silos. I believe we can do this with judicious use of cross functional moves and project working whilst retaining a “home” function to rotate from and return to in order to keep up to date with functional specialisms.

However, this type of career may not be attractive to everyone. For example, I met a marketing manager recently who was unhappy that she was increasingly working on cross functional teams when her aspiration was to develop her functional skills and follow a purely functional career. There may be more limited opportunities for these linear careers in the future in large organizations.

How will you balance the need for specialists and generalists in your organization in the future? What are your thoughts and experiences of being led by specialists or generalists?

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