Leadership in cross-functional teams is one of the major trends we identified as part of modern leadership (Don’t ignore the three trends shaping the future of leadership while talking about the future of work.)
If you’re looking to lead a cross-functional team meaningfully, here are some challenges you will need to overcome:
- Aligning with the cultures of different parts of the organization
- Different formal leadership structures despite shared goal
- Unfamiliar language and areas of expertise
- Potential lack of established relationships and trust
- Potentially for different areas of interest and motivations
Though these teams might be formal, the structures of leadership that make them effective might be more informal.
Let’s review some tools most helpful for improving leadership in a cross-functional team.
Work the Big Picture
Because the members of your cross-functional team bring different skill sets and backgrounds, they will see your shared challenge from different perspectives.
This broad perspective helps you solve the problem more creatively, and this diversity represents the promise of the cross-functional team format. It takes many skills to solve complex problems, after all.
But the array of different visions can make aligning the team on a shared approach more difficult than with traditional teams.
Moving up from the immediate tasks and project plan to a shape a shared big picture view gives the team a common reference point. To do this, be sure to start with some workshops where you connect the immediate work in front of the team with the overarching “why” that brought your team together.
For a pop culture reference, think about how The Avengers came together to save the world, despite their friction and competing interests.
What brought your team together matters? Remind your team of that. Help them come to that conclusion on their own, so they find the “why” of working together.
Here’s a simple way to do this:
- Host a workshop where you storyboard the project: what brought the team together, what challenges will you face, and what is the best ending possible?
- Make sure everyone contributes. Try to leave with a clear picture that you can reference in later conversations to bring everyone back to that clear, shared goal.
Develop the Common Language
Similar to the goal, which will give your first and most foundational reference point for the team, you need a common language.
The Rosetta Stone allowed the translation of ancient Egyptian because it contained three languages, two of which were known. Common languages allow people to understand each other, even when they are miles (or centuries) apart.
You’ll be building your team’s Rosetta Stone in this step.
Start by answering some questions:
- What’s important to the team? To the stakeholders?
- Can you give some of these abstract things names?
Look back at what the team identified in the journey during the previous workshop. Do all the challenges they expected to face have clear names? If not, make sure the team names them now.
You do this because a name is a shortcut to understanding. If you tell someone who has experienced heartburn that you are feeling heartburn, they don’t need a lot of description. You are naming all the heartburn afflictions for your team, but also the opportunities and the unique details of your work.
By building this shared vocabulary early, you are building shortcuts to understanding and pathways around misunderstanding. Shared language is also a great way to build rapport, which is our next step.
Build Rapport, Fast
Cross-functional teams are often transitory and part of a larger portfolio of work. In these cases, people might not feel the investment to develop rapport with their teammates, to get to know and trust them.
As the leader of this cross-functional team, you are going to have to help build that rapport. You will set the example that leads them to connect with one another.
Effective teamwork requires trust. That’s why trust exercises and shared experiences are prominent in team building programs everywhere.
I don’t mean to suggest there is some sort of shortcut to building rapport between people, or that a leader can mandate that people trust each other. But a leader can set the environment that makes that rapport more likely to emerge—or, more often, foster an environment where that type of rapport can’t occur.
Here are some components of rapport:
- Displayed empathy
- Shared experience or effort to overcome a challenge
- Investment and interest in the well-being of another
- Recognizing and seeing someone for themselves
You can set this example and encourage people to step up to this role. There are activities you can lead to make this happen, which we will explore in a future article. Until then, setting the example is key.
Integrate the Team
The previous steps have built the foundation for your cross-functional team. Now you need to integrate the skills of everyone involved.
Functional specialization is a boon for solving complex problems because it brings the type of deep knowledge necessary to see different options. Integrating people from different specialties allows for combinations of that knowledge in new ways.
The challenge, however, comes from getting the insights from one domain to translate to the other. As a leader of cross-functional team, you will connect some of those insights.
Your ability to connect the dots and ensure that one domain does not trample over the others will be key to integrating the unique skills on your team. This puts you in the role of conductor, drawing out certain sections while asking others to step back at time, to ensure that the entire symphony shines.
Just like composers arrange a symphony for sonic balance, you will need to arrange your professionals for productive harmony.
This is where you define responsibilities, designate methods for ideation and knowledge capture, and facilitate the structure of conversation.
After having established some common groundwork in previous stages, your team should be able to communicate. Now you can draw out their ideas and ensure that everyone can contribute based on their expertise and the needs of the team.
This stage is less about directives and more about coordination. Look for ways to make everyone comfortable and put them in the best position to use their unique skills.
Make a Team Culture
Team culture comes from all the above: the shared vision, language, rapport, and position within the architecture of getting things done.
It’s unfair to say you make a team culture. Prepare for one, and improve the likelihood that the right culture emerges from the decisions, behaviors, and intentions of everyone on the team.
Leadership of a cross-functional team is like most leadership: an effort in setting up others to be successful. You are doing so with less structure to support you, and perhaps less baked-in institutional trust. But you can set an example and tell the story.
Stories go a long way on every team, especially when everyone has a say in the writing of it.
By earnestly pursuing the strategies laid out in this article, you can nurture that culture. By living the outcomes above, you are more likely to see the team follow your example.
As long as everyone wants to accomplish the goals of the team, and you have set a path through the type of collaboration that makes these teams so special, you will see others do what it takes to make this culture of collaboration their own.