Multi-Functional Leadership

multifunctional leadership

The news hit me like a load of bricks:

Our VP of Sales and Customer Success were leaving the company.

At the time, my startup was going through the growing pains that many do, including turmoil amongst the leadership team. With this leadership transition, there was now an immediate gap that would need to be filled in order to keep the company operating smoothly.

I was serving as VP of Growth, overseeing marketing and operations. I had developed a reputation as someone who is willing to take on whatever is needed, and while I may not have been qualified to have the responsibility on Day 1, I was willing to quickly learn. So, it wasn’t a surprise that as the rest of the leadership team gathered, we decided that I should absorb those functions for the time being.

At first, the sheer volume of the responsibility was overwhelming. As I dug through the departments and learned about the current challenges and unique personalities on the team, it began to feel more attainable. I became a master at context-switching, jumping from a marketing strategy meeting to a sales pipeline review to speaking with an enterprise customer… sometimes within the same hour!

While I don’t generally advocate that you take on this level of responsibility permanently within your organization, as I did it, I noticed something interesting:

I was able to ensure the functions were working together like a well-oiled machine, because I was responsible for all of them.

In the past, when I only led marketing, my core focus was on driving marketing qualified leads to feed our sales team. While the other functional leaders and I strived to stay in alignment, meet regularly and keep an open line of communication, we’d often get lost in the weeds of our own department, and not have enough of an understanding of how our work may impact, positively or negatively, other functions of the business.

For example, our sales reps frequently asked for new collateral. As a small marketing team with a tremendous amount of competing projects, we constantly had to prioritize and make a best guess on what should be done first. I had some visibility into the other functions of the business, but it was far more limited. I relied on second hand insights to determine how important this collateral was, and if it needed to be prioritized.

Another example was the sales and customer success handoff. In some unfortunate cases, the sales team would bring on a new customer that was not a great fit for the company’s products, and the mess ended up in the laps of the customer success team. If someone was just focused on leading sales, it would be tough to have as much empathy for the customer success leader who actually has to deliver on the promises that the sales team made.

Suddenly, when I sat in all of those functional leadership seats, I got a huge shot of empathy, because there was nobody to pass the buck to. If my sales team sold a customer that wasn’t the right fit for our product, then my customer success team had to deal with it. I couldn’t escape!

This situation proved to be a blessing for myself and our company. My newfound empathy enabled me to make better decisions in each of the functional areas I was responsible for. It helped me better understand the struggles that my peers faced in their departments, and guided my way to make adjustments in how I led our marketing team to ensure I wasn’t just focused on meeting my own department’s goals, but instead was more aware of how our work impacted the broader business.

A simple way to describe this empathy and cross-functional awareness is “Multi-Functional Leadership.” It refers to leaders who consistently operate with the broader company’s goals in mind, and raise a red flag if they find that their department’s goals may be misaligned with the bigger picture. This is a characteristic that every successful leader should develop, and that great CEOs should instill in their executive teams. Consider these strategies to make Multi-Functional Leadership a part of your executive team’s culture:

1. Establish metrics that hold functional leaders responsible for company-wide goals

Good leaders will perform based on how they are measured. If leaders are held accountable to company-wide goals in addition to their department-level goals, they’ll have a clear incentive to help other functions flourish. Ensure that comp plans and KPIs are a healthy mix of department and global objectives.

2. Create service-level-agreements (SLAs) between functions

Establishing a written protocol on how departments should operate cross-functionally can be beneficial. This helps ensure that the marketing leader understand exactly what she is obligated to do to support the sales leader, and vice versa.

3. Expose leaders to other functions through immersion experiences

When leaders are exposed to the challenges of others, we naturally develop empathy. Having your engineering leader join the support team and answer tickets for a few hours, or having your marketing leader listen to sales calls can help foster a deeper understanding. For example, if the marketing leader hears first hand from prospects in a sales meeting that they’d like a certain piece of collateral, they will have far more conviction and urgency to get it created.

4. Insist on cross-functional transparency

As I’ve shared throughout this article, empathy comes from exposure and understanding. If there isn’t transparency on the challenges that each functional-area faces, it will be tough for leaders to make decisions in their own department that fully take into consideration the needs of other departments. That transparency can happen through your leadership meetings and weekly written updates.

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