On the Clock

Whom Do You Answer To?

Trying to advance your career in an environment where you’re reporting to more than just your direct manager comes with a unique set of challenges.

It used to be fairly simple: you had a boss you reported to directly, who also had a boss, and so on. The chain of command was clear, and departments, for the most part, worked in their own space.

Not anymore. For many people working in organizations today, the idea of having one boss who assigns and reviews all of your work isn’t the reality. Today, it’s common to be “pinged” and “Slacked” all day by your direct boss, people within your team, and people in other teams, and from time zones all over the world, with requests that require constant mental juggling. It’s especially true in matrix-based organizations, where employees officially have multiple managers to report to. Gallup research estimates that 84% of US employees are “matrixed” to some extent. “It’s a delicate balance,” says John Petzold, senior client partner at Korn Ferry and head of the CXO Optimization practice. “We have a lot of people to answer to.” 

Let your key stakeholders help you prioritize what truly needs to get done. 

That isn’t to say collaboration is not a good thing—the primary reason executives want to improve their cultures is to increase organizational alignment collaboration, according to a 2016 study by Korn Ferry. But for the average worker, trying to advance your career in an environment where you’re reporting to more than one direct manager comes with a unique set of challenges.

Own the communication game.

In working with different people on different projects, separating yourself from the pack can be difficult. One way to stay organized is to ask the people you’re working with for their communication preferences. Do they want email or Slack messages? Do they like to have 30-minute meetings or 15-minute ones? “We all have no time, and it shows you’re being respectful of what little time we have,” says Caroline Werner, senior vice president of global talent for Korn Ferry.

To that end, one of the best things you can do—and one of the biggest complaints about matrixed organizations—is follow up. By following through, you’ll distinguish yourself (and further stay organized), while also showing people you are paying attention. 

Show your agility.

In collaborative environments, it can be a boon to venture into new territory. If you typically take a creative role on teams, show that you’re willing to stretch into the more analytical challenges of the project. “Take the opportunity to play to the strengths you have and where you want to go,” says David Ginchansky, a Korn Ferry Advance coach. 

Prioritize, and then prioritize again.

In a culture where your brain is constantly split between multiple people and projects, it’s often inevitable that two deadlines will intersect or a seemingly small problem on one project will snowball into something that requires all of your energy. 

Career experts say the most important thing is to know the priorities of your organization as a whole; let your key stakeholders help you prioritize what truly needs to get done. This can sometimes mean saying no to even well-intentioned asks for more of your time.

Says Werner: “If someone asks for a favor and you don’t have [the] capacity, loop in your manager. Or say, ‘I’d love to do that, but now isn’t great timing. Let me think of some people who might be able to help you.’”

Remember who rates you.

Of course, none of your efforts to stand out will matter if your direct manager—the person who writes your review and is responsible for judging your performance—isn’t in the loop. “I would never advocate for giving the boss every detail of what you’re doing,” says Ginchansky. “That might be overly communicating, and they don’t need all of that info.” Career pros say it’s best to focus on big-picture tasks while sharing anything that will directly impact the work you’re doing for your boss, or anything that could come back and impact you—or your boss—negatively. “The person responsible for your review has the ability to steer the course and rate your performance for the entire year,” says Andrea Wolf, Korn Ferry’s market leader for the consumer market in North America. “Make sure that your priorities are clear and in agreement with that person.”

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