How to Succeed When Everyone Is in Charge

Jul 13, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

Do you have more than one boss? Reporting to multiple managers is actually a pretty common phenomenon, even though many of us still retain the image (or perhaps the fantasy) of the traditional hierarchy with a single wise senior executive sitting at the top. The reality, however, is that most organizations today have more than one chain of command, and to be successful you need to navigate between them.

There are at least three variations of what we might call "multiarchies" (multiple hierarchies), and each requires different strategies.

The first type is the professional multiarchy in which different professional groups have parallel hierarchies with little or no connection at the top of the organization. Hospitals are the classic example. Physicians report up through their specialties and then loosely to a medical chief of staff; nurses are ultimately accountable to the senior vice president of nursing; non-medical specialists heed to their department heads; and everyone else is part of the "administration," which is run by the hospital president. While the hospital president is officially the CEO in this set-up, his or her power over the other hierarchies is limited. Universities and research organizations operate in much the same way; as do many government agencies which have parallel civil service, political, and professional hierarchies. A key management strategy for succeeding in these organizations is to build temporary alignment on specific issues between groups and individuals that often have different longer-term goals (e.g. research vs. patient care vs. teaching vs. publishing vs. funding).

The second type of multiarchy is the matrix, which is present to some degree in most businesses. The matrix is a crisscross of business units and functions (portrayed as verticals and horizontals). The idea is that a functional specialist such as a finance professional will directly support a business unit but simultaneously adhere to the standards, programs, and priorities of the corporate finance organization. In essence the finance person has two bosses -- the business leader and the company CFO. In some cases there are even more than two bosses (for example, a country or regional leader). The good thing about a matrix is that, at least theoretically, it provides checks and balances so that local (business unit) and global (corporate) issues are weighed against one another. It also provides broader professional development and career paths for functional specialists. The challenge is that often the different sides of the matrix don't agree and the person in the middle (with more than one boss) feels compelled to choose sides. A key management strategy for these types of issues is to constantly work on clarifying decision rights so that when conflicts arise it is clear who has the final call.

The third type of multiarchy is the temporary project team. In these situations people are "loaned" from their home organization and report to a project manager for a period of time. If the arrangement is part-time, then project team members are challenged to juggle their time and priorities to meet both the project requirements and the goals of their regular job. If it's a full-time arrangement, the challenge is to make sure that there is indeed a home to come back to when the project is completed. A key management strategy for these situations is to establish the groundrules for the assignment ahead of time -- how much time will be involved, what relief from other assignments will be given, what happens when the project is completed? Asking these questions and getting agreement from both the project manager and your boss is critical for making these arrangements work.

Most people in organizations today live in multiarchies of some form and have to deal with multiple bosses. Assuming that these different bosses will all get together and figure things out for how you should operate in this complex world is probably not going to happen. To do well, you'll have to take the initiative yourself.

What's your experience with multiarchies?