Successful Recruiting in Matrix Organizations

Jun 4, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-05-31 at 11.33.17 AMIt’s no secret that many organizations are moving away from the traditional hierarchical and functional way of working, toward a more matrixed structure where people report to multiple bosses and work on multiple teams with colleagues in different functions and locations, if not different time zones and cultures.

While this model can be effective, it’s by no means simple. In fact, it’s a much more complex way of working. Competing goals, influence without authority and accountability without control are the norms.

For recruiters, let’s look at the implications of this shift, and whether we need different types of people and different skill sets to succeed.

In working with hundreds of organizations around the world, we have identified five factors that go together to make up the matrix mindset. Here’s the list of those factors along with some ideas of how recruiters could look for evidence that candidates have this mindset.

Self-Leadership — Look for evidence that individuals have taken control of their own goals, role, and career. Do they have a track record of finding and engaging with the other people they need to be successful? Do they carve out a role for themselves or wait for others to solve their problems?

Breadth — Ask where interviewees have thought beyond their role and function. Do they take ownership for the delivery of results that cross-organizational boundaries or do they tend just to look at things from their own functional role perspective? Do they understand the business context they work in?

Comfortable with ambiguity — Candidates who want a clearly drawn job description are likely to be disappointed in the matrix. Are they comfortable with less clarity, and do they have the confidence to propose their own ideas and suggestions? Ask for examples from their business or daily life about how they’ve dealt with ambiguity or made sense of a previously unclear situation.

Adaptive — Successful matrix managers are flexible and open to new ideas and new ways of working. They know that today’s solution to problems may not be the right answer tomorrow. Do candidates show evidence of coping with significant change in their lives and careers? Was this stressful or stimulating? Can they demonstrate some sort of personal or professional change as a result?

Influencers — Because a matrix undermines traditional authority, people use a wide range of influence techniques and sources of power to get things done. If candidates seem to always fall back on hierarchy they may be unsuccessful in the matrix.

As always, the best indicator of success is to already have been successful in this kind of environment. Because this is a new way of working for many people, however, we may have to probe more broadly to find examples of where people have demonstrated elements of this mindset.

For example, you may find evidence of self-leadership and influence in community, educational, or other aspects of people’s lives.

How people deal with major life changes can be good indicators of comfort with ambiguity and the ability to be adaptive. Moving jobs and locations can be useful areas to probe, particularly if the move meant a significant change in lifestyle, such as an international move.

For many people, the matrix mindset is underpinned by a skill set that allows them to influence others and get things done without traditional authority. Simulation can be helpful here. Recruiters can observe these skills in action by using an assessment center methodology that puts people in a complex, ambiguous environment where they have to take into account different perspectives and influence others in order to be successful. Group and individual assessment exercises can be designed to show these behaviors in action.

Working for multiple bosses is not for everyone, and it does challenge some of the traditional ideas about management. Consider that both IBM and Cisco reported losing around 20 percent of their managers in the years following the introduction of a matrix structure.

When done correctly, though, a matrix organization can lead to broader and more challenging careers and a higher level of personal development.

In the end, everyone — company leaders, their recruiters, and their employees – should keep in mind that success in a matrix environment is not about structure, but about mindset and ways of working. In this respect, recruiters have a critical role in bringing people into the organization who are both comfortable with and effective in this increasingly common way of working.