If you are sitting in a job interview and hear the words "dotted line reporting," you have just encountered the world of matrix management. In these organizational structures, you typically have two bosses: a "straight-line" direct boss, who is the person who prepares your performance review and decides on your raise; and a "dotted-line" boss, who may also assign you work but has less control over your review. It is easy to see how difficult a job could be if your two bosses aren't in agreement about your work or your abilities.
Since they came about in the 1960s and 1970s, matrix organizations have had a bad rap. They are often accused of stifling freedom and initiative, and being overly bureaucratic. In their HBR article, Problems of Matrix Organizations, Stanley M. Davis and Paul R. Lawrence say they cause all kinds of "pathologies" including: "tendencies toward anarchy, "power struggles," "navel gazing, and decision strangulation."
But as Ruth Malloy of the Hay Group said in a recent HBR blog post, more and more "global organizations like IBM and GE are embracing the matrix organizational model," so there's a good chance you'll encounter them as you look for jobs. And there are good reasons why they are so common. Matrix organizations keep their people customer-focused, whether the customer is internal or external. For example, a divisional controller may report directly to the CFO and on a dotted line to the VP of the division; which ensures that the controller knows what the "internal customer" (the VP) needs as well as what the direct boss (the CFO) wants. Matrices also prevent some parts of the organization from going off on strategic tangents, which may result in a product no one will buy or an internal policy that won't be accepted. Matrix reporting systems are designed to keep people working together and not at cross purposes.
Jobs with matrix reporting relationships are not generally entry-level professional positions. These relationships occur frequently in jobs with internal customers, like human resources generalists, facility managers, or business systems analysts in information technology. But positions that require a strong relationship with outside customers, like account managers for major corporate clients, may also require client approval and input when you are hired and when your performance is reviewed.
If you are able to balance more than one manager, it is a big career plus to work for a matrix organization. How else would you get the opportunity to get to know two managers who are senior to you, to develop a network of colleagues in two different areas of your company, and to have the chance to learn and grow in two different areas at the same time? It certainly worked for me. I was a senior human resources generalist reporting to the VP of Human Resources, and my dotted-line boss was the EVP in charge of most of the rest of the bank. He really liked me. So, with my assent, he managed to arrange for me to work directly for him with a big raise and fancy title. Of course, then I had to work with my previous boss on a dotted-line basis, but that's a story for another time.
To successfully manage your own career in a matrix organization, it's important to make sure your managers are aligned and can work with you without competing with each other. Getting caught in the middle might cost you your job. Make sure it doesn't by asking some essential questions up-front, even in the interview process.
Are your managers aligned? During the interview with both managers, ask something like, "In my first 30 days in this job, what are the most important things for me to accomplish?" If they have different priorities, that is a problem to solve with your direct boss before you accept the position. They won't always agree, but if they have similar goals, you should be able to manage your relationship with both of them.
What are their perceptions of each other? Another clue to your future success is the attitude one department has about the other. Try asking each potential manager: "What are the people like who work there?" or "How have you worked best with them in the past? Can you give me an example?" In this case, the information you want is not so much in the content of the answer, but in the attitude and language of the boss you are talking to. If you get any whiff of "us vs. them," that's a bad sign.
What's the general attitude towards collaboration? Both managers have to be collaborative for you to be successful on the job. Listen to how each talks, not just what each says. Do they talk about themselves all the time? Are they always saying "I" and never "we?" Never mind if they talk about "teamwork" or "customer service." Do they actually act as if they do it?
It is a commonplace among recruiters that the employment relationship starts with the interviews, for good or for ill. This is particularly true in matrix organizations. If you get along great with one manager in the interview, but find the other hard to relate to, that may be a problem that will persist. As a job candidate, it's up to you to assess in the initial stages of the interview process whether or not you will be successful working in this organization and, more especially, for these two people.