Leading Through Example: Cross-Functional Teams

agile leadership alignment collaboration focus
Leaders planning at a whiteboard

By Julie Springer

December 12, 2022

If you want to do a better job serving your team, start by improving how you work with the other managers. We expect our teams to learn how to work well together and to have shared goals, but this is often not seen at the leadership level. Leaders tend to focus more on their own areas, competing with other managers for resources, rather than working as a cohesive unit. To better support your teams and improve results across areas of responsibility, leaders must set the example for cross-functionality and collaboration.

Your First Team

As a manager, your primary team is not the people you are leading. Your “first team” is your fellow managers — your peers. This idea comes from Patrick Lencioni, author of “The Advantage.” He says,

"Your first team has to be the Leadership team. As strongly as we feel about our own people and as wonderful as that is for them, it simply cannot come at the expense of the loyalty and commitment we have to the Leadership team." - Patrick Lencioni

When leaders aren’t aligned, teams get conflicting priorities, struggle with dependencies, and wait for answers. Each area is operating as a silo, optimizing based on their goals, without accounting for how this impacts other areas. As a consequence, everyone goes slower, as there is a lot of work in progress but not a lot getting done.

Cross-Functional Leadership

The solution to this is for managers to work as a cross-functional team. On a cross-functional team, people represent areas of responsibility or expertise, but share common priorities and goals and work together to deliver value. It’s not sufficient to simply share information about what each person is doing in their own area. A compilation of goals is not the same thing as a set of shared goals, developed as a team.

The change to working as a cross-functional leadership team starts with how you plan your work. Just like your delivery teams, you need to spend time together developing a strategy, planning and defining a backlog of work to accomplish as a team. The strategy and plan will guide the teams in each of your areas, and the backlog that you work on together includes the work you need to do to support the teams that you are leading.

How This Looks in Practice

An example of what this could look like, is forming a team that includes managers responsible for development, operations, policy and quality assurance, within a bureau, or supporting a project or product. As managers, you come together on a regular basis for planning; perhaps quarterly, for strategic planning, and every two weeks, for tactical planning. You define outcomes and measures of success for the teams that you are collectively responsible for, and identify places where the teams need your help. Every two weeks, you decide what you will work on together, to support the teams, and reflect on how you are working together as a team. You set goals for how to continue working better, together.

In this way, your planning and delivery cycles mirror the teams you are supporting. You get first-hand experience with working on a cross-functional team and are better able to support your staff members in working on their teams. Most importantly, the goals across all managers are aligned, so that all teams can focus on what is most important. This reduces dependencies, improves flow and supports teamwork, at every level. Don’t ask your teams to do anything you aren’t willing to do yourself!

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