One of the greatest challenges facing leaders in matrix and global working environments is ambiguity. Unclear expectations, competing demands and lack of role clarity; these are all factors that contribute to a challenging and complex working environment. Underpinning this is the extent to which you can accept that this is ok, and believe it is a place in which you can both function well on a daily basis and succeed over a longer period of time. If you require a clear structure with congruency between what really happens as opposed to what is said will happen, then a matrix is not going to give you this.
There’s nothing wrong with not being able to adapt to the ambiguities of a matrix structure, because your need for structure is hardwired, as it is with all of us. It just means that each day there is a disconnect between your behaviours and how you feel about what you are doing, and why you are doing it. Those who are unable to deal with the complexities of dual reporting and the cross-functional tug of war that comes with such an environment need to own up to this and do something about it.
And the good news is that there are things you can do to overcome the ambiguities of a matrix and achieve success.
Successful leaders can accept ambiguity. It doesn’t mean that they like it, but they are able to see it for what it is and put measures in place to compensate for the lack of structure and clarity that they desire. I’ve spoken previously about some of those measures in the article Tips for Succeeding as a Matrix Leader. They included:
There is one other successful matrix leaders do very well. They favour collaboration over competitiveness.
In an ambiguous working environment the path to success, either individually or for your team, isn’t always clear, yet, in such an environment our natural instinct is to either fight or flee; and if we choose to stay and fight we are in a competitive mindset that naturally creates blind spots and works against our ability to think and act strategically. In a matrix or global working environment a strategic mindset is a must; and is a natural companion to a collaborative way of working. The best way to succeed in complex environments is to look for ways to achieve success by leveraging the expertise that exists in other parts of the business. In a small to medium sized business the ability to be the ‘jack of all trades’ may be important; but in a large organisation it is a blocker of success; in fact this mindset reinforces silo’s and a competitive mindset (“why share or collaborate when we can try and do it all ourselves?”). In a complex organisation, knowing who the masters of their trades are, and how to leverage that expertise is what gets you ahead. Instead of imagining the boundary that separates your team or function from the next as being solid; see it as soft or somewhat porous and allowing of energy, creativity and communication to flow more freely.
You may not be able to remove ambiguity from your world, but you can find ways to make your peace with it and set yourself and your teams up for success. The first step is to be honest with yourself around the extent to which you can easily work in such an environment, and then determine the actions that will help remove the fog of ambiguity and allow you to succeed.
The ability to lead and manage across borders is fast becoming an indispensible leadership quality. The way business and business growth is trending it’s highly likely that a majority of tomorrows leaders will experience leading teams, functions or businesses largely comprised of virtual and globally dispersed teams. This isn’t restricted to the more well developed industrial nations either; many large manufacturers, IT and services organisations are busy investing in emerging economies, which represents a whole new way of organisational thinking and in turn leadership behaviours to ensure success. In fact the organisational approach and the leadership behaviours that underpin success in a global context are very much the same and evolve around three key criteria:
Organisational. As an organisation, the ability to create a culture and practice of genuine collaboration is critical. Many M&A’s and expansions into new countries stumble or fail because more effort is invested into protecting and defending territorial patches and ‘old’ ways of thinking, rather than relaxing the mostly psychological boundaries and allowing energy to flow between teams, functions and countries. But collaboration doesn’t just happen. If time is invested up front to create a level of strategic alignment between the impacted leadership groups, followed by a short process of creating a shared vision of what successful collaboration looks like, along with a framework or supporting leadership charter, then you have done more than most companies in enabling organisational collaboration.
Leadership. Fostering collaboration is difficult if it doesn’t feel supported or safe to do so. If there isn’t an organisational approach to enabling collaboration, then it falls to the leader to make it happen; and this is more about mindset than skill. Collaboration can be:
The actual ‘doing’ of collaboration isn’t so difficult; it’s the thought process that precedes the behaviour that makes or breaks collaboration at a leadership level. If a leader is able to relax the boundaries that separate them from their team, and their team or function from the rest of the organisation, they open up the gates for energy to flow and exploration of the different perceptions held around how the work can get done. As we know, this comes back to the level of self-confidence and awareness of the leader to see the benefits of letting go and their level of resilience to weather the storm, deal with the issues and bounce back when it doesn’t quite go to plan.
Organisational. We tend to think of communication on an individual level, and there is no doubting the role that leadership communication plays in reinforcing the trust required for cross-border success. But like collaboration at an organisational level, there is an organisational responsibility to create an environment where conversations are encouraged, feedback is highly regarded and the tyranny of distance is no barrier. The last one should be the easiest from a technological perspective, but it is the supporting organisational capability plan that will ensure people know how to use and optimise communication technologies. The intersection of the organisational capability strategy with the internal communications and broader strategic plan will also help highlight the types, intensity and frequency of communication required to ensure the broader goal of successful global working is achieved.
Leadership. In a multi-national environment, a leaders ability to use communication as a key leadership tool is critical, especially if they are leading people in another city or country. Unlike the leader who sees their team everyday, the ability to ‘walk the talk’ takes on a whole new meaning. Whilst ever a leader is thinking in mono then there isn’t the likelihood of inspired thinking or discretionary behaviour from their people. When we are thinking in mono, our behaviour is quite lineal and we miss the opportunity to connect with people beyond the transactional. Once leaders think in stereo or even in surround sound, their words and actions have the ability to be everywhere and live on in the minds of their people. And this is what the global leader needs to perfect – to be able to paint pictures with their words in such a way that if their team can’t see what they mean in person, they can clearly imagine it and be motivated by the possibilities of what the picture represents.
Organisational. Global leadership at it’s best is supported by an organisation that clearly understands and internally articulates the fact that it is global. This articulation can be seen in the following ways:
In other words, if the organisation were a person, it would know who it is (a global creature) and be very comfortable with who they are. It’s not always easy to reach this stage, especially for those companies in the early to mid stages of international growth; the teenagers of the global business community. However it is attainable, and necessary, for the organisation to be able to support their leaders in driving the culturally aware organisation.
Leadership. Culturally aware organisations create and communicate strong messages of inclusiveness and speaking with one voice starting with the board and the executive leadership teams. The national make up of these groups is only one factor that can create an immediate impression of organisational cultural awareness. What is more important is the quality of their actions and the way in which they lead. Do they actively promote and encourage collaboration and cultural diversity? For example, speaking a shared language when more than one or two countries are represented in a meeting or respecting time zones when setting international meetings. If little things like this aren’t done at the most senior levels of leadership, then it’s not likely it’s being done down throughout the organisation. The potency of leadership at this level is critical to ensuring the right messages are cascaded down through all leadership levels regarding cross-border leadership.
Dropping down into the organisation, the same principles apply, just in a different way. For a business leader, this doesn’t mean being able to speak all of the languages of the people in their team. This is about understanding the ways of working of the people in your team, and what behaviours or rituals are important to observe and incorporate into the team’s way of working. Like collaboration, it’s not something that comes naturally to all leaders, especially those who are leading for the first time in a global capacity. This is where the strength of message from senior leaders and the supporting organisational frameworks are critical in helping leaders in more complex situations. It also means that teaming and the way teaming occurs is a little bit different, and works more with understanding and creating shared values and ways of working rather than the more traditional behavioural teaming approaches.
Whilst globalisation isn’t new, the idea of developing leaders to lead in a global context is relatively new. But leadership development is only one part of the equation. To really set our organisations up for global success it is about seeking full integration between:
1. What we want our leaders to do, and
2. The organisational measures we have in place to enable our leaders to do it well.
In an everyday leadership environment this is important. In a global leadership context - it is critical.
High Performance. It’s what CEO’s want to see from their organisation, what leaders want from their functions and teams and what we all want to achieve individually and see from each other. And yet it seems such a difficult proposition, to consistently achieve levels of performance that are personally satisfying, highly regarded in the team and rewarding across the organisation. In a recent conversation it was said that the achievement of consistent performance was a myth - that it wasn't possible.
But the answer to achieving consistent high performance may be simpler than we think; irrespective of the size and type of organisation or team that you lead. It all comes down to 'inputs' and 'outputs'.
The output is easy…that’s the desired performance you are looking to achieve. The inputs though are a combination of three interdependent factors:
Experience tells us that whenever we have achieved outstanding results, each of these factors have been addressed. So let’s take a look at these factors and explore them in different contexts.
Broadly speaking, this is about capability. Do my people have the skills to do what I want them to do? Supporting this is having the resources to help them apply their skills, knowledge and expertise. Without the appropriate resources, ability can be stifled and you may never really get to see what your people can do. The reverse is true as well if you have all the right resources, but your people don’t have the capability.
Are my people motivated to do what I want them to do? And this isn’t just about incentivisation. Sure compensation and benefits play a role, but we also know that the ability of leaders to engage, and apply a transformational leadership style often rates equal to, or higher than, salary when it comes to what motivates them to either leave or stay with an organisation. Do you give your people permission to explore and take constructive risks? Do you tap into your potency as a leader in painting a strong vision for where the team, function or organisation is headed and provide your people with a direction in which they can invest their energies?
This is as much an element of Motivation as it is a stand-alone factor. Do you provide your people with the opportunity to be challenged by delegating and ensuring that you are working and leading from the appropriate tier? This is about trusting both yourself and your people enough to let go and free up the flow of activity that we often see bottlenecked at all levels of management. If we can do this, we are at the same time reinforcing the importance of succession planning, and creating the belief that there is the opportunity to grow and progress in your organisation. You become an enabler of talent.
Over the years I have seen so much frustration from both leaders and their people because they cannot consistently achieve the levels of performance that they want; or in some cases fail to achieve the desired performance levels at all. By looking at performance as being about inputs and outputs you can break it down to identify more specifically (and easily) the areas to be addressed. Some of the more typical examples we tend to see include:
By looking at each of these cases through the ‘input’ and ‘output’ lens, it breaks the issue down in such a way that it becomes a manageable problem, and something that can be more easily addressed. In each of these examples the solution to the problem becomes tangible and in most cases something that can be quickly solved.
More importantly it also helps you get on the front foot and be proactive with how you anticipate what will be required to set the scene for success. Go through the three factors from the perspective of what you need to do and what others will need to do. Some possible questions to ask include:
Finally, even though this is a high level view of performance, what it does highlight is that the achievement of consistently higher performance isn’t out of reach. If you were to apply the Ability, Motivation and Opportunity lens to any areas where you are seeking to achieve greater performance, either from yourself or from others, you will move closer to your desired outcome of higher and more consistent performance. The main thing is to keep it simple and remember – inputs and outputs!
Are you a mountain or a valley when it comes to your leadership style? Depending in which country or countries you are leading, you may require more mountain, more valley or a little of both.
Let’s explore this idea a little further.
Mountains are big, solid, easy to see and imposing. They are also vulnerable. They are exposed to all of the elements; many are barren and being a mountain is more often than not lonely. In time, due to this exposure, many mountains crumble or have large pieces break away. As a leader if your style is more mountain then you have probably identified with many of these characteristics; you feel as though you have to be strong, solid and dependable and stand out from the rest of the group and perhaps take on more than you should to get things done. In some countries this may be acceptable, and in others a non-negotiable way of leading. In countries where hierarchy and power are central to daily and organisational life you need to be more mountain, and be seen to hold your place in the hierarchy. Most of Asia, France, many eastern European and South American countries fall into this category.
Irrespective of which country you apply mountain leadership behaviours, there are consequences of this behaviour; just as the mountain has landslides and in time breaks down, the same can be said for our physical and emotional well-being. We start to worry more than usual about what others think – which is natural when you are working hard to stand out from the rest. The biggest consequence is that we can push people away rather than bring them with us, which in turn creates not only the power of the role, but the solitude that comes with a mountain.
Through western eyes this is often considered an unacceptable way of leading; but in the context of the country from which the culture originates, it’s not for other nationalities to judge; rather it is about understanding and seeing it as an evolved way of leading for that culture.
That then explains why if you are using more mountainous leadership behaviours in countries where the key word is ‘empowerment’, then you probably won’t be getting the results you want. In these countries, where hierarchy isn’t considered as important, we tend to see behaviours that are more representative of a valley. Effective leaders in this context look to their people for solutions and are approachable – and they are usually more effective connectors. Whether it is the ability to lead a cross-functional or multi-national team, be an effective business partner or guide a collaborative organisation – all of these require the ability to connect with people and to connect people. This is exactly what a valley does. A valley is the ultimate connector. Two or three grand mountain systems can all be connected by the one valley that weaves its way around and through the tall and imposing features.
Is a valley any weaker than a mountain? No. In some ways it could be considered stronger given that it doesn’t have the same exposure to the elements and receives the rich nutrients than flow down from the mountains into its creeks and rivers. It is able to derive the best of every mountain that it comes in contact with, and for this reason, it is in the valley where the soil is the most fertile. There is cross-pollination, and an abundance of life. Most Anglo, Germanic and Scandinavian cultures tend toward the valley way of leading. However just as the mountain can crumble, the valley can flood. Leaders who lean more towards the valley style can find themselves overwhelmed and drowning simply because it is just as acceptable for a manager to get in help out with the troops, or take on more of a workload to ease the pain of the team. In other words, become a rescuer.
So just as the mountain way of leading isn’t so palatable for the westerner, neither is the valley seen as being very applicable by those who lean towards mountain behaviours. Again, it is purely contextual and must be recognised that it is a style of leadership that has evolved for that environment.
Having said all this, it’s important to realise that from a national culture context, neither the mountain nor the valley leadership styles are better than the other; they each perform well in their given context. Where it gets interesting is when you are leading people from different countries and cultures. When this is the situation, it’s not about giving up who you are; it’s about being comfortable in your own skin whilst you adapt your style to suit the culture or country that you are working with.
At the end of the day, it's worth considering that some days you may need to be the mountain, some days the valley, and others you are a plateau at 2000 metres. Either way it’s about choosing the path of least resistance to achieving engagement despite borders.
This article continues our exploration of business partnering, focusing on one of the key pillars of being a successful Business Partner; Trust.
There are two words that clearly define what it means to be a Trusted Business Partner; intensity and involvement.
Intensity and Involvement
You know you are achieving trust in the partnering relationship when you are experiencing a higher degree of discretionary involvement in key decisions, and mostly ahead of time. Discretionary because there is a willingness by the business to pull you into the conversations rather than you having to find ways to push your way in. The conversations are more intimate by nature and tend to be of greater intensity. In other words, moving away from the more ritualistic and transactional conversations to those that are more creative and strategic.
So where is the link with trust?
Quite simply, whilst ever your relationship is transactional and reactive, neither party is giving or receiving a great deal. You could say that it is a safe relationship, but not necessarily engaging for either party. The other end of the scale is a higher risk place for both parties; but the potential return for the relationship and the business is far greater. Rather than being reactive and pulled in at the last minute, or after the fact, and put in a position to make the most of the decisions that have been made around you, you are in the middle of the those decisions. A trusted relationship will see you invited to contribute to key decisions or to make recommendations ahead of time. The risk is greater because you are working to a certain extent with the unknown, and providing guidance that may not come off the way you plan. In other words you are putting yourself out there; laying your professional self bare by sharing what you think about something that quite possibly hasn’t happened yet. That’s a scary proposition in many respects for most people; and that’s what makes this a higher risk place to be. But anyone who has operated from this position will tell you the rewards are much higher – especially when things go to plan. And in those moments when things don’t go plan? You will find that the failure will be offset by the fact that you came from a place of experience and credibility.
So how do we reach the position of trusted in a partnering relationship? There are two dimensions of activity to be considered; above the line behaviours, and below the line thinking.
Above the Line Behaviours
Above the line behaviours are the things we do or say that impact everything from creating first impressions, through to role modelling and reinforcing outcomes we are hoping to achieve. To move to a position of trust, there are a few key behavioural considerations to take into account:
How you ‘turn up’. Remember that first impressions count, and whilst you don’t want to be giving up who you are, there is an element of alignment that needs to occur between who you are, and who your client is (and where they are), to establish the first non-verbal elements of rapport. Really good business partners know that building trust and a relationship commences before they’ve even opened their mouth. An important element of your first impression is the ‘pre-first impression’. You may be meeting an internal client for the first time; but what reputation are you bringing with you? Are you known for a solid, dependable level of delivery or a hit and miss track record. Your reputation, and pre-first impression should be top of mind and this is especially true for internal business partners where the ability for your internal clients to connect, gossip and share experiences is much easier than it is if you were dealing with external clients. This all forms part of the package that will walk through the office door of your new client.
What you do. This is about the things we do to maintain a surface level of connection and credibility despite the way we may be feeling or what we think about a situation. There are many times when we may feel anxious about a situation, be highly excited or be strongly against a proposed course of action. However it is our ability to connect with what we think and feel, make sense of it, and then choose a credible behaviour that allows a constructive dialogue to continue that makes the difference. Too often I’ve seen business partners shoot from the hip with how they feel or what they think, only to see a situation sour, rather than taking a moment to acknowledge what’s going on for them internally and then decide a healthy course of action. Part of this element is about the consistency with which you do what you do; which feeds into the pre-first impression mentioned in the above point. There is a kind of relativity that exists between consistency and trust that we’ve all experienced. The higher the consistency in performance over time the higher the trust. The cumulative effect of consistent performance also means that when you have dips in performance, as we all do from time to time, they are just that…dips that are understood and more easily recovered from.
Below the Line Thinking
This element drives ‘how’ you do what you do. Do you partner from a place of cynicism and suspicion or from a place of openness and transparency? Is your approach about one upmanship and always knowing better, or do you come from a position of collaboration and shared learning? Are you solutions-focused and proactive in your thinking and behaviour or do you wait until an issue arises to be pulled into a situation? These are all different ways in which Business Partners can be perceived, and they are all directly impacted by 'how' you partner.
How you do what you do is critical in building trust; you want to be pulling people towards you and not pushing them away. Whilst your above the line behaviours certainly have a role to play in this, the core driver comes from your below the line thinking. For this reason, it’s really no surprise that one of the best ways to develop yourself professionally as a Business Partner is to develop yourself personally; in particular developing your self-esteem and emotional intelligence. These two aspects of ‘self’ are fundamental to how you connect and work with others. As you develop these areas you will find it easier to drop your guard enough to trust that those around you don’t want to pick holes in your ideas or recommendations (and if they do that’s ok too because you can keep it about the task and not make it personal).
Role modelling is another aspect of below the line thinking that builds trust in your relationship, and impacts your pre-first impression. The outcomes we achieve in business are often the result of how the transaction occurred rather than the fact that it did. If you have internal clients who are struggling to achieve the results they want in other parts of their role, your ability to role model different ways of thinking and behaviour to achieve a result in your relationship may open their eyes to how they can create healthier relationships in other parts of their life. You then represent much more than a subject matter expert; you are a trusted partner - they have taken the risk of trying something different based on what you have brought to the relationship. That takes trust.
It Starts with You
The journey towards being a trusted Business Partner is one of growth and development in and of itself. The experiences you will encounter, both good and bad, are opportunities to be learned from and folded into your partnering tool kit. There will be times when the journey is tough; but they will pale against the moments of enjoyment and fulfillment that you will experience as a trusted partner. Above all, it starts with you; if you don't believe in what you are doing, your clients won't either. Trust yourself that you can make a difference - and your journey towards becoming a Trusted Business Partner has commenced.