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How to Develop Core Competencies for Matrix Leaders

leader working with team member, smiling and looking at computer

We’re consistently asked how to develop leaders so they can work better in a matrix and what are the core competencies that they will need.

I smile when asked this, because I know my answer is going to surprise them.  


First, Let’s Think About What It Really Means to Be in a Matrix

Most people think of a matrix as a particular type of structure, but that’s not it at all. Essentially a matrix is having to work in two dimensions: the vertical or the hierarchical dimension, and the horizontal or cross-functional dimension.

Let’s talk about the vertical first.

Most leaders have learned how to be hierarchical leaders – leading by making decisions, possibly after collecting inputs from direct reports, by delegating out work, by trying to control those who report to them, by seeking constant status updates, etc.

This approach to leadership is dead (or at least it’s dying). Millennials want no part of it and it’s not the most effective approach anyway. There is a more enlightened way to lead the vertical, but let’s save that for another article. 

That gets us to this mysterious horizontal—the dimension of cross-functional business processes and projects. It’s also the dimension of governance.

But first, let’s address cross-functional business processes. Most business processes cross functional lines. Even something that sounds functional, like Accounts Payable starts outside of accounting – either in Procurement or in a Business Unit who is contracting a service.

Business processes, like Sales, are part of a larger stream, one we call the “Operating Process” that starts with R&D and ends with Customer Service. Sales is one subprocess, so there is a set of core competencies that leaders need to have around business processes such as how to lead a cross-functional business process, how they should be designed, how to know if they need to be improved or reinvented, how to measure whether they are in control, etc. 

We’ll come back to projects in a minute but let’s go back to governance.

In a matrix, the horizontal is the primary dimension – which is one of the key ways you know if you’re operating as a matrix – the horizontal takes precedence over the vertical and that means that governance happens in the horizontal. And that means that governance is cross-functional!

That operating process is governed by a steering council made up of stakeholders in the process, therefore core competencies of matrix leaders include:

  1. The ability to lead or sit on a governance team.
  2. They need to know how to set criteria and prioritize the portfolios that council may oversee – portfolios like the portfolio of customers or the portfolio of projects.
  3. They need to know how to build a high-performing team – one composed of “peers” or even “superiors”, which are terms that come from the hierarchical approach where everything is determined by rank or status.
  4. They need to know how to oversee business processes and projects, because these are the two ways in which work gets done in any organization.
  5. And they either need to know how to set strategy for a portfolio (strategic steering) or how to operationalize a strategy set at the strategic level (operational steering). 

How Do Leaders Prepare to Be Leaders or Participants of Governance Teams?

They learn by learning first how to lead projects.

That’s right, the first core competence that matrix leaders need to have is project leadership. Optimizing how projects are run is the first level in the Matrix Maturity Model.

You may think you have project competence in your organization, but I’m wondering if what you really have is some people, at lower levels, who have been trained in project management.

I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about project leadership and the skills needed to actually lead a project effectively. Those are the same skills that matrix leaders need to build and run governance teams.

Think about it. Projects are unique in a couple of ways:

  • They are how you execute strategy – everything new or improved happens or should happen through projects. That’s new products, new IT systems, initiatives that change how the organization operates, improvements to business processes, etc.
  • Projects are the one thing in vertically oriented organizations that are by nature cross-functional. It’s hard to find a project anymore that doesn’t also have an IT component, or an initiative that doesn’t involve HR.  

Because projects are cross-functional, they are the perfect place to begin teaching leaders who to lead in a matrix. Matrix leaders have to learn to be cross-functional leaders, which is what the horizontal is all about.

And one of the unique things about the horizontal is that there is no authority in it. You can’t just make decisions and tell others what to do. That’s not how the horizontal works. You have to learn to create engagement and ownership so people will align with your project. Those are core skills that every leader needs to learn and the best place to learn them is through learning to lead projects. 

Project Leadership Is a Core Skill in a Matrix

So is business process leadership. And learning how to govern and how to lead governance teams comes after leaders learn these two basic competencies. What leaders learn if they pursue the project leadership path is how to create alignment in a cross-functional team, how to create buy-in and ownership, how to share accountability, how to facilitate rather than dictate, how to set direction, how to create buy-in and adoption from stakeholders, and how to influence, negotiate and sell.

That’s right, selling is a core skill for matrix leaders because they can’t just dictate what will be done, they have to convince, to persuade. They have to learn how to build high performing teams and in the case of projects, they have to do that from scratch, in a very short period of time. 

And very importantly, they have to learn how to use collaborative tools with their teams. Collaborative tools are at the core of effective collaboration and team leadership. They provide a structured, step-by-step approach for a team to follow to get things done together. Leaders need to learn collaborative decision-making and problem-solving. They need to learn a whole tool book of collaborative planning tools. They need to learn brainstorming and prioritizing tools.

Collaborative tools are core to matrix leadership. The leader facilitates those tools and the tools enable cross-functional teams to make good decisions – to create effective plans. 

Every matrix leader needs a firm grounding in project leadership as a starting point for learning how to lead horizontally. They can’t really be on a governance team that oversees projects if they don’t know how projects are really run. And they will likely be asked to lead large initiatives, ones like “Training Matrix Leaders in core skills”, and they need to know how to do that and how to do it collaboratively.  

Companies seem to think teaching people how to lead in a matrix is something that can be done in a three- or six-hour session, but it’s much bigger than that.

Leaders need to unlearn a lot of what they have been taught and then learn a vast array of new skills to lead collaboratively.

Make no mistake—you can’t avoid this shift. It’s the way the world is trending and the only question is whether or not you’re ready to embrace these changes proactively

Paula Martin

Paula Martin is a Master Level Certified Matrix Management Consultant™ (CMMC™—MOL), and the CEO and Chief Creative Officer of the Matrix Management Institute. She is the developer of the MM 2.0™ Operating System, and the author of the Matrix Management 2.0™ Body of Knowledge, the Matrix Management Reinvented book series, and more than 10 other books on topics related to Matrix Management and Managing Projects in a Matrix.