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6 essential cross-functional team leadership skills that benefit your people and company
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6 essential cross-functional team leadership skills that benefit your people and company

Discover the top skills you need for cross-functional team leadership to bring out the best in your people.

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In 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge opened after four years of challenges from adverse weather conditions, strong currents, and accidents. Then the tallest and longest suspension bridge in the world, it came to symbolize US progress, serving as a model for suspension bridges around the world.*

Constructing the bridge involved teamwork between geologists, engineers, architects, construction workers, and public bodies, to name but a few. Without this cross-functional collaboration, it would never have been built. 

Cross-functional teams are nurturing environments for groundbreaking ideas and new solutions—and team leaders are a catalyst for that. Cross-functional leadership takes specific skill sets to manage people from different backgrounds and harness diverse talents so creativity and innovation can thrive. 

In this post, you’ll discover six cross-functional team leadership skills to get people working better together, eliminate silos, and move projects forward faster. You’ll also learn how Switchboard acts as a home base for cross-functional collaboration where you can get more done.   

Stay aligned without the meetings. 
Switchboard’s persistent rooms let you organize everything–and everyone–by project so you can always find what you need. 
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What is cross-functional team leadership and why is it important? 

Cross-functional team leadership involves managing a team of people from different departments, companies, industries, or areas of expertise as they work toward a common goal. 

Leveraging diverse skills, knowledge, and perspectives through cross-functional collaboration strategies drives innovation and makes organizations more agile, adaptable, and resilient. Strong leadership is key to improving team effectiveness and driving change, so cross-functional teams need a leader who can bring diverse people together to do their best work—and overcome the challenges involved.  

Cross-functional teams may have a single leader or leadership may be shared between a few people. In these situations, cross-functional team leadership involves both managing team members and collaborating with co-leaders. 

6 effective cross-functional team leadership skills

See this post for more on what cross-functional collaboration is. For now, let’s take a look at the skills you need to make it a success. 

1. Teamwork 

Teamwork is vital for cross-functional teams to achieve their goals—but it doesn’t always come naturally. That means it’s your job to get–and keep–this diverse group of people on the same page and working well together. 

To do this, set and clearly communicate shared team goals that no individual can achieve alone, meaning they have to collaborate. You should also communicate the benefits of cross-functional collaboration. For example, if UX is designing a new user flow, they can get valuable insights from customer support about where users get stuck.  

After that, says Anita Hossain, Co-Founder & CEO of The Grand, "You need to deeply understand your people and adapt your leadership style accordingly." There’s no one-size-fits-all, so take the time to understand each team member’s working and communication styles. Some people think on their feet; others need time to reflect. Some are task-oriented, while others need to build personal connections first. Use their communication style when you interact with them. For example, you can be direct with a results-oriented developer but more personal with a people-oriented designer. 

Encourage teamwork by acknowledging personal and professional milestones, especially good examples of workplace collaboration. For example, by shouting people out on a dedicated Slack channel.

Slack channel with shoutouts
Praising teamwork motivates people to collaborate. Source: Switchboard 

Some other skills you need for teamwork include: 

  • Accountability and ownership. These are vital when you have a lot of interdependent people and tasks. Lead by example, taking ownership of your decisions, actions, and mistakes. Foster accountability in team members by understanding their skills and motivation and giving the right mix of support, encouragement, and autonomy for them to take ownership. For example, if someone is competent but lacks confidence, you’ll need to help them overcome that.
  • Conflict resolution. Any group of people with different personalities, perspectives, and communication styles is bound to butt heads sometimes. For example, product marketers might get frustrated with engineers focusing on features rather than human users. Conflict can be exacerbated when there’s no clear group leader or people aren’t answering to their usual line manager. 

To deal with conflict, Hossain suggests creating individual “user guides” covering people’s values, communication styles, etc. This promotes mutual understanding and lets you know how to handle them when handling conflict.  

2. Relationship building 

When cross-functional team members don’t know each other, they may lack the trust and empathy that are essential for great teamwork. That means it’s up to you to connect everyone—starting at the top. 

Startup Marketing Consultant Elliott Brown says, “There have to be strong relationships between people. It starts at the leadership level, with strong relationships between each cross-functional leader. Then, you have to help the direct reports build strong relationships with their counterparts….You can't be involved every step of the way so you have to build this connective tissue between teams to work cross-functionally.”

You should also build relationships with the “influencers” in each department as they can be powerful advocates for the project and help you get buy-in from others. 

Here are some ways to build cohesive teams: 

  • Start meetings with a “traffic light” check-in. This creates a shared understanding of where everyone’s coming from, so nobody takes it personally if someone’s distracted. Green means “I’m fully present and ready to go;” yellow, “Present but thinking about a deadline, email, etc.;” red, “My mind completely elsewhere.” 
  • Get to know each other. For example, through exercises like “Hot Seat” where everyone on the team has five minutes to ask questions of another person on the team. This breaks down barriers and lets you find common ground. 
  • Shared interest Slack channels. These let people bond over non-work related topics like pets, hobbies, etc. to build team culture.
  • Team building games and activities. From meeting icebreakers to organized activities like an escape room, these let people open up, compete, and improve collaboration skills in a relaxed setting. You can even create a dedicated, persistent games or “watercooler” room in Switchboard for team building activities and spontaneous interactions.

3. Project management 

There are a lot of moving parts with cross-functional projects, so you need good project management skills to keep everyone and everything on track. 

This starts with knowing how you’ll define and measure team success at each stage. Understanding project deliverables and how each task and person contributes to them allows you to prioritize, allocate resources, and assign tasks according to team members’ skills and capacity. 

Here are some skills you’ll need for project management: 

  • Planning and prioritization. You need to be a strong planner, able to develop and implement plans that support team goals, taking into account resources, timelines, and deadlines.  
  • Risk management. This lets you identify potential blockers and develop strategies to mitigate them. 
  • Time management. Managing your and your team’s time is crucial to complete tasks on schedule while avoiding burnout. 
  • Delegation. You can’t do it all, and micromanagement can affect morale when people don’t feel trusted. Understand each person’s skills, abilities, and capacity so you can delegate early and appropriately. Give people autonomy and support and you’ll be amazed what they achieve. 
  • Decision making. Cross-functional team leadership requires you to negotiate and compromise, but also to be decisive and act fast to resolve issues. You need to be rational and objective and get timely input from team members. You also need to be able to anticipate how your decisions will affect people and the project. 
  • Problem-solving. Cross-functional teams often work at the cutting edge of innovation, so you’re in uncharted territory. This can cause unforeseen challenges, so you need to think on your feet and head things off at the pass to maintain team members’ trust. How will you keep things moving if you’re short on staff, resources, or time?
  • Resilience. Cross-functional teams will encounter numerous challenges on a project, so your ability to bounce back from setbacks and stay positive helps keep them motivated.
Pro tip: Create a persistent room in Switchboard to keep everything–and everyone–organized by project. Open up all the browser-based apps and files your teams need and work side by side on anything in real time or hop in later to add contributions async. 
Switchboard menu with different rooms
Having all your work and tools in one place makes it easier to keep everyone aligned—without the need for constant meetings. Source: Switchboard 

4. Effective communication 

Good communication helps build the trust, empathy, and relationships you need for teamwork. Clearly communicating goals, progress, and setbacks to stakeholders creates alignment and helps people understand the why behind what you’re asking them to do. 

“Each team has dedicated resources and is trying to balance things out to serve their own goals as best they can,” says Brown. “If you can’t develop a strong common understanding of what everyone's trying to accomplish, and why it's important, you may not get the support you need from your cross-functional partners.” 

Here’s what great communication looks like: 

  • Honesty and transparency. This helps establish psychological safety, which lets people speak their minds without fear of consequences—and contribute ideas. Being upfront about problems or bad decisions helps keep everyone on board, which makes it easier to navigate roadblocks.  
  • Active, empathetic listening. Hossain says, “Leaders tend to use ‘self-focused listening,’ [which means] listening to respond or looking for patterns.” Instead, she recommends listening with empathy and no agenda to truly understand someone’s situation. “It’s a really hard shift for leaders to take, but it's an important one.” Don’t forget to also be aware of body language and non-verbal clues. 
  • Open-ended questions. Often, opinions are masked as questions, like “Have you thought about doing it this way?” (i.e. my way). Instead, ask questions you don’t have answers for to avoid steering people. 
  • Difficult conversations. Check in with yourself first to see whether you’re in the right frame of mind to deliver feedback from a place of caring. If you’re calm, curious, and open to learning, go ahead. If you’re defensive then you’re likely to blame rather than help them, so you should wait until later. 
  • Over-communication. Everyone has different learning styles and complex messages should sometimes be repeated in a mix of formats. For example, try recording a short video instead of sending another email.
Pro tip: Create a persistent Switchboard room to share updates and progress so you can keep people informed without a meeting. For example, open a Google Doc so people can add status or standup updates async and read them on their own time. You can also share materials before meetings so people can get up to speed async and come to the meeting ready to work. 
Switchboard room with Google Sheet open and app statuses
Keeping updates in Switchboard lets you cancel more meetings and makes the ones you do have more productive. Source: Switchboard 

5. Coaching 

“Leaders tend to feel like they need to jump in and fix problems,” says Hossain. “This is especially true when you're working cross-functionally, because you want to keep things moving.” When you just want to cross things off your to-do list, the temptation is to hand down solutions. However, this makes people dependent on you rather than developing their problem-solving skills. 

Instead, try developing a coaching approach, which empowers team members to find their own solutions and be independent. Guiding, not dictating, says Hossain, “Is one of the most effective yet underutilized leadership tools.” 

One coaching approach is the “outcome shift” method. This involves asking a series of questions to guide team members to focus on solutions, not problems. Establishing what they want and what it means for them helps clarify goals and understand motivations, leading to greater self-awareness and more focused problem-solving.

6. Emotional intelligence and sensitivity  

“When you're managing a cross functional team everyone needs to feel really supported and have a sense of belonging,” says Hossain. “When employees feel that way, there’s a 56% increase in job performance, a 75% decrease in sick days, and 50% reduction in turnover risk. If leaders are really conscious about the space they're creating within their workplace, that's critical for success.” 

Creating a supportive work environment where cross-functional team members can thrive takes empathy, authenticity, and vulnerability. You also need to be able to recognize and manage your own emotions and be sensitive to those of others, which takes self-awareness, social intelligence, and the ability to read the room. 

“Empathy is really important,” says Brown. “You have to understand where someone is coming from and what they're trying to achieve… you need to be able to get to a meeting of the minds by understanding what motivates each team.” 

You also need cultural sensitivity when managing people from different countries or minority groups. This will help you navigate the challenges caused by different working and communication styles resulting from different attitudes and practices. For example, Americans often communicate more directly than Brits.   

Benefits of cross-functional team leadership

Some of the benefits of good cross-functional team leadership include:

  • Better teamwork, problem-solving, creativity, and innovation when you combine all those perspectives and knowledge 
  • Team collaboration, not competition, which lets you achieve more together  
  • More aligned, efficient teams, which avoids siloed and duplicated work  
  • Realize the potential of each cross-functional team member  
  • More motivated employees who understand their role in achieving team goals 
  • Stronger relationships between team members and leaders  

Cross-functional team leadership: Build faster, together 

The Golden Gate Bridge is often thought to be the creation of chief engineer Joseph Strauss, but no complex project is ever the work of one person. It takes consistent collaboration between cross-functional teams from different functional areas. 

Keeping people from different backgrounds aligned and collaborating requires cross-functional team leadership skills like teamwork, team building, communication, project management, emotional intelligence, and coaching. These let you be a catalyst for the innovation and creativity that lead to groundbreaking ideas and new solutions. 

When you use Switchboard as a home base for cross-functional teams, you get persistent rooms that make everything multiplayer. That means you can work side by side on anything during meetings or hop into the host-free room to make progress on your own schedule.   

Stay aligned without the meetings. 
Switchboard’s persistent rooms let you organize everything–and everyone–by project so you can always find what you need. 
Sign up free

*Golden Gate Bridge, Encyclopedia Britannica 

Frequently asked questions about cross functional team leadership

What is an example of a leading cross-functional team?

An example of leading a cross-functional team could be a product manager directing a team of developers, designers, engineers, and sales teams to develop new app features based on user feedback.  

What is a cross-functional team structure?

A cross-functional team structure involves individuals or groups from different departments or functional areas within an organization or industry. Depending on your project, your cross-functional team might be:

  • Project-based: A team formed to complete a specific project or task and disbanded afterward. 
  • Functional: Formed to address a specific business function, like app development or new product marketing.
  • Consortium or innovation partnerships: Companies, institutions, NGOs, governments, etc. join forces to resolve complex questions or develop solutions that are hard to tackle alone.  

What are key characteristics of a cross-functional team?

Some key characteristics of a cross-functional team include: 

  • A diverse mix of individuals with the skills and expertise to bring different perspectives, knowledge, and data together 
  • Shared team goals that no one person or group can accomplish alone 
  • Dependence on each other to move work forward 

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Stay aligned without the meetings.

Switchboard’s persistent rooms let you organize everything–and everyone–by project so you can always find what you need.