Leadership Management

True Grit: Managing Cross-Functional Teams

Cross-Functional Leadership
Written by Therese Padilla

As a product manager, I found that one of the most important things to understand about a cross-functional team is that no two groups are created equally. Managers tasked with overseeing a single function team; are responsible for a group of people who all speak the same language – literally and figuratively. They work in the same department, they utilize the same resources, they have the same skill sets.

For product managers, the challenge truly begins when you talk about crossing functional areas – different departments have different perspectives and objectives on just about everything. They all have their own unique goals and different ideas on how to get there. They don’t necessarily speak a different native language, but in their domains of the functional groups, they do – creating something of a barrier for the person tasked with keeping everyone focused in the same direction (namely, you).

Leadership and Trust: Two Essential Ingredients for Cross-Functional Team Success

If you really want to take control of the proverbial ship and steer it towards the horizon where it belongs, you’ll need to keep a few important things in mind when it comes to cross-functional team leadership. Leadership in general is so important for success; it should come as absolutely no surprise that it is one of the essential components in terms of working with cross-functional teams on a daily basis.

Think about it this way: leadership is powerful because it fosters unity. What could be more important than unity when talking about a team that is naturally spread more thin than usual due to its cross-functional nature? Trust, in turn, becomes the glue that holds everything together. If leadership and leading by example brings everyone together, trust helps to make sure they don’t splinter apart again before the task is completed.

Dr. Jordi Robert-Ribes states that “Most companies embark on team building exercises to build trust among team members. However, few of them embark on “bridge building” exercises to build trust among people from different teams.” This strikes right at the heart of the idea that functional experts MUST take the lead at times, but it is the product manager as the cross-functional team leader who balances the act. The product manager provides essential direction and focus, not only keeping everyone on the same page but keeping them all moving in the same direction and towards the singular, important goal.

The Role of Upper Management

In terms of cross-functional teams, another tremendously important quality for success has to do with upper management or stakeholder support. Make no mistake: this level of support is MANDATORY. Having stakeholders and upper management at your side really means that they have your back. This can help provide essential mind share and even more crucial focus when it is needed the most.

Remember that with a cross-functional team, people are naturally working in different directions but they’re all expected to wind up in the same place at the end of the day. Upper management and stakeholder support is the map they’ll use to reach that destination.

The Core Steps for Cross-Functional Team Management Success

By and large, the number one way to guarantee cross-functional team management success involves setting clear objectives that you communicate clearly and widely. If people don’t know what you expect of them, what they should be doing and what role they’re playing in the larger group, how can you ever expect them to meet those demands?

You’ll also want to make an effort to build positive team dynamics whenever possible. This means NO political games. NO gossip between team leaders. NO meetings or endless email chains that feel like collaboration but really accomplish little. No passing the buck or “blame game” playing. These can be significant roadblocks in a traditional team dynamic, to say nothing of how disastrous they can be with a cross-functional team.

Quite often, this will require you to master the fine art of the “meeting before the meeting.” If you make an effort to iron out any possible conflicts prior to the public meeting where all team leaders are present, the strong sense of unbroken guidance you need will be on display for all to see. In many ways, this is the product management version of the old saying “never let them see you sweat.” You can sweat all you’d like, just do it in private.

Visible Leadership and the Cross-Functional Team

Above all else, leadership is the most visible way for a product manager to take control of a cross-functional team for the benefit of everyone involved. It really does come down to the age-old idea of “lead by example.” If you KNOW that the product is great, and if you KNOW that the industry is great, everyone else will know it, too. Reasons like this are why effectively leading a cross-functional team is and will always be the mark of a true leader.

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About the author

Therese Padilla

Therese is President of the Association of International Product Marketing & Management. She is a product management professional with broad experience in all areas of product development and management, including consumer products, enterprise software in startups and large corporate environments. Therese created the first product management certification program at the AIPMM which she co-founded in 1998.