Five Ways to Survive an Impossible Job

Posted 05.26.2010

Dennisblair Late last week, the Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, resigned from his job after a little more than a year in the job. As reporting in the Washington Post points out, Blair’s replacement will be the fourth person to hold the DNI job in just over five years. In legislation passed after 9/11, the DNI’s charge is to coordinate the collaborative work of 16 different intelligence agencies including the CIA. Just about every informed observer believes that it’s an extremely difficult job, maybe even impossible.  

In some ways (and obviously not in others), the DNI role is like a lot of other leadership roles in a matrixed organizational structure. More and more these days, leaders find themselves in jobs with a lot of responsibility but not a lot of direct authority. With a mixture of dotted lines, solid lines and no lines at all in the org chart, leaders in a matrixed environment have the unenviable task of herding the cats. 

What can you do to survive one of these jobs? It seems pretty clear that you can’t act as if you have a lot of authority to command things get done when, practically speaking, there are all kinds of ways for others to avoid or ignore doing what you want them to do. Especially in the first year or so, surviving in a matrixed leadership role depends a lot on effective change management. With that idea in mind, here are five strategies to increase the chance of survival in one of these roles:

Recognize the informal power:  There’s the nominal power that comes with a title and its position on an org chart and then there’s the power that comes with strong relationships and networks built over time.  If you’re in a matrixed leadership role, one of your first tasks is to figure out who has the informal power and what their goals are.

Redefine success:  Once you’ve figured out where the real power lies, do a gap analysis between your goals and the goals of other leaders in the matrix. Look for the common goals and the ones that are pretty closely aligned even if they’re not a complete match. Redefine success as helping others accomplish the goals that move you in the direction of your bigger goals.

Demonstration projects:  Look for and support projects and initiatives that move things in your desired direction. Be their biggest champion and do what you can to get the attention of key stakeholders focused on those projects and the positive difference they’re making in support of the broader agenda.

Make more offers than requests:  Especially when you’re new to the matrixed role, be intentional about making more offers of assistance than requests for assistance or compliance. A lot of the resistance in a matrix comes from stakeholders’ fear of losing something they don’t want to lose. By offering assistance on initiatives that can fit with your overall agenda, you build trust and create the foundation for making requests on the things that are most important to success in your role.

Avoid turf wars:  It’s human nature in organizations for people to assess who’s up and who’s down.  Getting sucked into that dynamic can be really counterproductive in terms of getting real work done. If you see yourself getting pulled into a turf war, step back and ask yourself if it’s really a battle that’s going to help you win the war.

So, these suggestions represent one point of view. What do you agree or disagree with when it comes to surviving in these very difficult matrixed leadership roles? What would you add to the list? What would you absolutely take off the list? What other ways are there to think about how to survive one of these impossible jobs?