One of the single biggest contributors to successful matrix leadership is conduit management. Yet, despite the positive impact of conduit management, it tends only to be a way of working that is taken for granted by those for whom it comes naturally. For most matrix leaders, conduit management tends to be an afterthought or not thought of at all!
So what is conduit management?
In simple terms, it is being able to anticipate, collate and decode information from many sources (eg; their managers, key stakeholders etc…) and then pass a single message on to their team that is balanced, accurate, authentic and respects the integrity of all involved.
To understand the role of conduit management, lets consider a recent scenario we observed in a large manufacturing firm. The national head of Operations was preparing for an ERP roll out across the country, including four large manufacturing sites. The single biggest issue he faced was the conflicting opinions held by his two managers:
This is a big example; yet it is the sort of scenario we see played out on many levels. The fact remained though, that irrespective of whether the two managers could find common ground, the roll out would still occur. The other more difficult reality was that if his direct reports or the wider manufacturing workforce caught on that there was a difference of opinion at senior levels of the organisation, this could add greater complexity to an already arduous roll out that had involved internal politics and a long tiresome process of ERP selection.
How to provide a focused message to the workforce?
If we look at this type of situation through a conduit management lens, what sort of actions can help to decongest the pipeline and assist the matrix leader with providing a single and focused message to the workforce?
The first step is to seek alignment, or a common position between your managers. Ideally this is done face to face, or at worst, in a single conversation over the phone or online. It allows for a dialogue on the topic and for your managers to hear your perspective. Don’t be surprised if you find that there has been little to no dialogue between your managers on the topic!
If your managers can’t find common ground, then seek to establish an agreement for moving forward. This is a simple facilitated meeting that results in a contract between you and your managers, that explicitly states the following:
If you can achieve either of the above outcomes, you’ve gone a long way towards setting up an easier to manage conduit between those above you, and the people who look to you for key messages. Importantly, it also reduces the impact and instances of gossip that tend to blossom in the chasm of differing opinions.
Conduit management is also about how you lead in a matrix on a daily basis. Naturally it comes to the foreground in times of change, however effective conduit management can contribute to the development of your leadership tool kit in other ways:
It helps develop critical thinking and decision-making skills. You will receive many pieces of information from those above and around you – deciding what is important to pass on, and who should receive it isn’t always easy. Sometimes it seems easier to push it to one side and hope that it takes care of itself! However good conduit management is about learning how to synthesise information that may contain different opinions (sometimes from the same person!) and interpret what’s really being said when making a decision on what you will pass on, and how.
It creates opportunities for communication and strengthens relationships. The beating heart of a matrix organisation is relationships. Relationships with your team are equally as important as those in your network and those with your own manager/s. An effective conduit manager is on the front foot with relationships, because they understand that there is greater clarity through dialogue and free-flowing communication.
By leveraging your network, you can anticipate where conflicting messages come from and make your own evaluation on whether they are grounded in reality or just gossip. This will inform the way you manage the expectations of your team; the ability to nip something in the bud by debunking an issue as idle gossip can save a lot of time down the track when the gossip may take on a life of its own!
Maintaining regular one on one’s with each of your up line managers (and as often as practical - three way conversations), will also ensure you are in the best position to anticipate, interpret and explore issues and topics with your managers in a controlled and proactive way, rather than finding yourself in the same situation as the manufacturing head in the above example; trapped and reacting.
Finally, conduit management is an understated and often unknown, leadership essential in complex organisations. In some respects it is the bundling of a range of leadership skills and attributes that we already know, and applying them in a specific context. Conduit management can be learned, and the ability to apply conduit management principles is often the difference between surviving and succeeding as matrix leader.