Influence, Authority and Purpose: 3 Keys When Sponsoring Cross-Functional Teams

Written by on August 20, 2014

A different set of leadership competencies are called for when sponsoring a cross-functional team.

Cross-functional teams, by their very nature, are made up of diverse people with very specific expertise who are tasked with working to achieve a common goal for the organization. Often, multiple departments are required to collaborate to achieve the objective. The leader of a cross-functional team must be aware of the unique dynamics that occur in this situation; it really requires a whole new approach to leadership. The leader must intentionally step back from their day-to-day approach and tap in to his or her influencing skills.

As a first step, it is important to be clear about the goals or purpose of the cross-functional team. The leader must ensure that all team members, understand their accountability and the scope of their decision making authority. As the leader, you may be used to managing different points of view in your own functional area; when leading a cross-functional team, you may have to use your influencing skills rather than your positional authority to arrive at solutions. Team members in this situation have two accountabilities. For example, an IT professional is required to bring her IT expertise to the project, and may also be looked to as the spokesperson for the IT department to the project team.

Usually, in these situations, the members of the cross-functional team still have their “day jobs” and still report back to their functional leaders. So as the leader, it’s essential to lay out for the team members at the project’s inception exactly what the role of each member includes.

  • Are they there to bring their perspective?
  • Their technical expertise?
  • Or are they expected to be a representative of their department?
  • Or possibly all three?

It’s up to the leader to clarify the scope of expertise that each member of the team is expected to bring to the table.

The authority of the leader changes significantly in such an environment. Usually, people working on cross-functional teams are held jointly accountable for the success or failure for the team’s efforts. In this context, the leader’s role moves away from traditional management to that a team coach. They must find ways draw the on the unique strengths and insights of each member of the team, creating the conditions for them each to be at their best to ensure that the joint outcome is achieved. Ideally, the leader creates a co-operative, inter-departmental atmosphere focused on the project goal.

It’s up the to the leader to ensure that team members have a shared sense of purpose and that they clearly understand how they can rely on each other’s expertise and how decisions will be made. The need to be explicit up front is critical for success. Many teams follow the RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed) method, which is a helpful tool for clarifying “who’s on first” in a cross-functional team environment.

Cross-functional teams are unique leadership situations that require leaders to tap into their ability to influence, build relationships and clarify purpose.