Matrix Management

Do flat structures reduce career opportunities?


A recent report from CEB suggests that career opportunity and recognition are two major reasons that British workers leave their jobs -nothing new there then!

They go on to propose that increasingly flat organizational structures may be one of the contributors to this as organizations become leaner and delayer. It is clear that there will be fewer middle management opportunities as this trend continues. However this and take account of potential growth or breadth in middle management opportunities as organizations become more successful and globalize.

A key advantage of the matrix, for people who are prepared to be mobile, is the opportunity to build a broader career with experience across geography and across functions.

I was lucky enough in my corporate career to work in more than one country, in three different organizations (plus two business units within one of them) and in four different functions. The functional and international moves in particular were some of the biggest learning experiences in my career, but only one of them was a promotion.
We tend to think of careers as vertical progression within a function but this is the essence of old-fashioned silo thinking. I talk to many leading organizations and am always surprised how few of them encourage cross functional moves. This will have to change to make matrix management successful.

The matrix requires a blend of generalists and specialists. The new (and scarce) skill is the ability to take an end-to-end view across the organization, to integrate cross functional and international views into a stream of value creation that goes from customer right through to suppliers and partners.

No organization that I am aware of has really cracked the issue of compensating these kind of lateral moves effectively. It requires broad salary bands and flexibility to recognize personalized career paths. It also requires individuals and companies to move beyond thinking about functional careers. A cross functional move is not just an assignment outside your core function before returning “home”, he needs to become part of a process of building “horizontal” capabilities.

There are risks to being a trailblazer too. For me being an international and cross functional generalist in my career was fantastic springboard into my work in global, matrix and virtual management; I was already living the matrix in the early 1990s. For others becoming a generalist may mean you are less marketable in an environment where functional specialism and silo careers are the norm. Personally I believe that these integrative skills will be extremely valuable in the future and I would encourage people to take the risk.

I described this opportunity has an advantage for people who are prepared to be mobile. It’s worth saying that functional and geographic mobility are not for everybody. If you are looking to be a specialist within a function or to stay in your home location indefinitely then the matrix may not be for you. As the vast majority of major international organizations now operate some form of matrix management you may be limiting your career options there by making this choice.

CEB also finally concerned that with a reduction in the number of middle management positions there are few opportunities to develop future senior leaders by exposing them to progressively more complex management challenges. I am less concerned about this as I believe that we often learn more by managing different operations and different types of people than by managing increasingly senior people within our function.

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