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10 key skills for cross-functional team leadership

Cross-functional team leadership is when you manage a group of people who come from several different departments, with different functions and different skill sets. It’s one of the most powerful tools for innovative organizations—and one of the most tricky to use effectively.

Successful cross-functional leadership requires organization, strategy, and people skills. It takes time and practice to master. Fortunately, you don’t have to do it alone. By using employee management software, you can gain a scientific edge toward understanding your team.

We’ll cover the following topics over the course of this article:

  • Why cross-functional team leadership is key
  • The 10 cross-functional leadership skills that matter most
  • Empower your cross-functional team leadership with The Predictive Index

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Why cross-functional team leadership is important

In the past, many companies had departments driven by a single focus. These departments rarely worked together. In a modern, competitive environment, this is no longer an option.

The benefits of an effective cross-functional team

MIT’s Sloan Review found that the most innovative companies today use extensive cross-functional collaboration. By smashing the barriers between departments, cross-functional teams unlock new ways to tackle problems and ensure information flows smoothly across the organization.

For example, imagine a company that wants to design a new product. If the company’s engineering team works alone, they might have trouble understanding what the customer needs or why people struggle to use the product. Their only solution? Surveys or other indirect data.

On the other hand, if the engineering team works with the sales team to design the product, they’ll have fewer issues understanding the customer. Because the sales team knows what the customer wants, they can make sure the product actually solves their needs. Because the sales team knows common customer complaints, they can prevent the engineering team from making obvious (or not-so-obvious!) mistakes.

This is especially important in a hybrid work environment. Remote workers are more likely to become locked in silos, the exact problem cross-functional teams are built to solve.

You might be thinking, well, sure! Of course that’s useful. Why don’t more companies do it? Because managing a cross-functional team is hard.

The challenges of a cross-functional team

In a cross-functional team, each member is already part of an existing department. Usually, that means they have responsibilities outside of the cross-functional team. If cross-functional team leaders aren’t careful, they can unintentionally burn out their team members—or end up as the last priority.

That makes planning difficult. If a department head gives a cross-functional team member too much outside work, the entire project could screech to a halt. And if you’re trying to hold a meeting? You’ll have to find time that works with every other department’s schedule.

Communication can be more difficult too. The power of a cross-functional team is that it allows many departments to work towards a common goal. The flipside? Team leaders also need to keep all of those departments informed. If department heads feel left out, they might balk at providing additional guidance or resources. They might even pull people out of the project.

Because planning and communicating with the involved departments is so difficult, sometimes cross-functional teams venture off on their own—with predictable results.

If they don’t communicate with their original departments, cross-functional teams are likely to lose track of their original purpose. Even worse, they’ll lose accountability. A mismanaged cross-functional team might have nothing to show after six months—and what they do have, the company and the customers don’t need.

The end result? Up to 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional on at least one measure, according to the Harvard Business Review. That doesn’t mean you have to settle for less, or abandon the idea of cross-functional teams. Instead, you need effective leadership that follows the best practices for cross-functional teams.

How cross-functional team leadership helps

Every team benefits from strong leadership. Because cross-functional teams deal with so much ambiguity, strong leadership is especially important.

Leaders with cross-functional experience have the skills and intuition to deal with common problems. When other departments become skeptical or withhold resources, cross-functional leaders can win them back. When other departments push for different initiatives, cross-functional leaders are brave enough to stand their ground.

In other words, cross-functional teams aren’t the place to groom brand-new leaders. You need an experienced hand that can navigate unexpected challenges. More importantly, you need one leader who’s fully committed to the project. Bring in too many managers, and none of them will be invested, causing your ambitious project to fail.

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The 10 cross-functional leadership skills that matter most

Almost every cross-functional leadership skill is also used by traditional leaders. The key difference? Cross-functional team leadership creates extra demand on those skills, or requires them to be used in unique ways.

1. Creating mutual understanding

The most important skill to cross-functional team leadership? Understanding how the project helps each functional area of the organization.

If department heads don’t think the project impacts them, they might claim to be invested, but they won’t truly commit to the project. You can’t just tell a department leader that the project helps the organization. Instead, you need to prove how the project helps each department individually

If the department head knows the project will make their job easier, they’ll buy into the project. That means more available resources, and a powerful advocate within the organization.

2. Excellent communication

A cross-functional team leader may need to communicate progress and roadblocks with half a dozen people—or more. If the team leader only updates stakeholders when the project goes aflame, everyone will scramble for an exit. This is especially true in a

Instead, cross-functional team leaders need proactive and effective communication. Whenever an issue arises—or even might arise—they keep everyone onboard. Otherwise, they risk losing the trust (and buy-in!) of other departments.

3. Project management

A team might have the best vision in the world. But without someone to do the grunt work of breaking down and assigning tasks, they’ll never succeed.

Cross-functional team leadership means mastering every aspect of project management: Staying organized and aware of tasks. Delegating early and often. Using soft persuasion to get team members to work harder and faster. Knowing precisely what each team member’s capacity is—and when they’re taking on too much.

With strong project management, a cross-functional team can keep moving, even when their original departments need help.

4. Decision-making

Every department in a cross-functional project has to commit resources. It goes without saying that every department leader wants a say.

It’s easy for a cross-functional team leader to get lost in the outside demands—they make one change here, a compromise there, and before they know it, the project has lost all direction or sense of scope.

While cross-functional team leaders need to communicate and compromise, they also need to be decisive. If the leader doesn’t fight for the team’s goals, no one else will.

5. Clear goals

Cross-functional team leadership doesn’t just mean knowing what the vision of the project is. It also means defining and measuring success.

Cross-functional team leaders go into a project with a clear understanding of what the deliverables are at each stage of the project. They aggressively route project resources towards meeting those deliverables, even at the occasional expense of secondary project concerns. When department heads know goals are being met, they have more faith in the project—which means more support.

6. Conflict resolution

No matter what a cross-functional team leader does, they’re eventually going to run into conflict. The team leader might conflict with a department head who wants to claw back resources for a different project. Or, the leader might not be involved at all—two team members might have a fight, and the leader has to resolve it.

Leaders should have a step-by-step plan for resolving conflict. They should also be well-aware of the behavioral preferences of their team members, and the ways that can create conflict.

7. Problem-solving

Cross-functional teams are often like a startup within an organization: Everyone has broad skills, and they usually work on new frontiers, like product development.

Because cross-functional teams often provide the innovative edge of an organization, leadership means solving problems by definition. Unexpected issues or new opportunities will come up, and the leader will need to act fast.

Even in more conventional roles, though, cross-functional team leadership demands extensive problem-solving. When unexpectedly short on staff or resources, cross-functional team leaders need to ask: How can I accomplish more with less?

8. Team building

Because cross-functional team members come from different departments, they may not know each other well. Without familiarity, they may lack trust, which makes team collaboration difficult.

It’s not enough for a cross-functional team leader to be easy to get along with. They need to actively (and quickly!) inspire their team. If team members are shy or introverted, the team leader needs to help those team members bond with everyone else—without disrespecting their behavioral preferences. This may take extra steps in a remote or hybrid environment.

9. The ability to build trust

We’ve already mentioned it several times, but it bears repeating: Cross-functional team leaders must build trust.

Cross-functional team leaders often have little control over their team members, let alone the resources other departments give them. As a result, they can’t lead by fear or secrecy.

The only alternative? Honesty and transparency every step of the way. Cross-functional leaders can’t afford to hide problems. If they do, and the problem blows up, team members and department leaders will retreat into their silos—and the project will suffer for it.

10. The ability to give trust

The fact is, cross-functional team members are usually already short on time. They often can’t make every team meeting, or give 10 updates a day. Don’t make their job harder.

When you micromanage your cross-functional team, you take precious time out of their day. Worse, you lower their morale—a serious issue to any leader, but especially when you can’t directly enforce consequences.

Cross-functional team leaders need to lead from the front instead. Focus on creating a positive workspace. Identify roadblocks and improve workflows. Recognize and reward progress. When you create an effective environment for your team members, you’ll be shocked at what they can get done.

Empower your cross-functional team leadership with The Predictive Index

Being a great team leader starts with building a great team. With a cross-functional team, that’s hard enough as is. With PI Design, you won’t need to worry about constructing the perfect team for the job.

By analyzing the behavioral strengths of your employees, PI Design’s Team Discovery tool will help identify the best people for the job. No more wondering about team dynamics, either: PI Design’s scientifically validated team analysis will let you know exactly how the team works together—and where they excel.

Once your new team is ready to start crushing goals, PI Inspire will make management easier than ever. PI Inspire compares and contrasts your team members, allowing you to predict and avoid conflict—and when it does happen, PI Inspire will give you powerful tools to solve it.

Cross-functional teams can be difficult to get off the ground—divided responsibilities and unclear communication can keep even the best projects from taking flight. With strong leadership, though, cross-functional teams don’t just fly—they take the rest of your organization to the moon.


Robbie is a technical and content writer at PI. You can find him walking by Lake Michigan or plotting his next DnD campaign.

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