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How to Lead a Team in a Matrix Organization

By Perry Holley | January 25, 2023
How to Lead a Team in a Matrix Organization

The senior exec was excited to be offered the opportunity to lead a high-profile new line of business for the organization. She was told days before the announcement that she would not be getting a promotion or new title yet, but perhaps, if the venture were successful, she would become the executive leader of this new division. For now, however, she would lead a cross-functional team of individuals from different parts of the company to get this project off the ground.

The Matrix

The idea of matrix management was first developed in the 1950s in association with the aerospace industry. It wasn’t until the 1970s that matrix management became widespread in U.S. companies. Matrix management describes an organizational structure where individuals can report to more than one leader. A team member might have a direct supervisor they ultimately report to but also have a dotted line reporting to another leader or leaders depending on the projects where this employee is assigned. 

There are pros and cons to a matrix system, but for any leader tasked with leading a cross-functional team in a matrix organization like our senior exec above, there are five best practice ideas to ensure project success.

1. CONNECT WITH EACH PERSON ON YOUR TEAM.

John Maxwell says in the Law of Connection that leaders must touch a heart before they ask for a hand. In a matrix organization, individuals may have more than one leader they are taking direction from. To ensure each person on your project knows they are on your team, connect personally with them.

2. BE CLEAR ABOUT OUTCOMES.

Because the people on your team may have other job responsibilities, everyone must be clear on the outcomes they are responsible for on your project team. If there is any uncertainty, team members may become distracted or disconnected.

3. BE CLEAR ABOUT THE ROLE AND RESPONSIBILITY OF EACH PERSON ON THE TEAM.

Unlike a team in a hierarchical organization, teams in a matrix organization may not be personally knowledgeable of the other team members and what they do. It is your job to promote camaraderie and teamwork by clearly defining what each person is responsible for.

4. HAVE A COMMUNICATION STRATEGY.

The quickest way for a matrix team to feel disconnected is to be unclear about what’s happening. You should have regular communication check-ins with the team. This may include one-on-one and group communication. Your communication plan should also include updates to your manager and other peer leaders who would benefit from knowing what your team is accomplishing.

5. BE INSPIRING.

Teams inside a matrix organization are more productive when the leader is present, positive, and inspiring. Inspiring leaders bring an energy that pulls people into the work. They invite the team to speak about the best way to achieve the desired outcomes. Inspiring leaders empower people to do their best work.

In a matrix organization, you can build a team of the best talent, but that’s not enough. If the leader does not engage the team correctly, there will always be the risk of distraction and disconnection that can derail even the most talented teams.

About Perry Holley

Perry Holley is a coach and facilitator with Maxwell Leadership, as well as a published author. As co-host of the Maxwell Leadership Executive Leadership Podcast, he has a passion for developing others and seeing people grow into the leaders they were intended to become.

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