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Tips for Leading a Globally Distributed Group

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by Scott S. Elliott, Principal and CEO

Many of today’s leaders try to coordinate business resources that are scattered over a large geographic area – perhaps even the whole world. It is common for such people to have direct reports on two or three continents, plus possibly key partners, subcontractors and suppliers even further afield. Leading such a dispersed group can be physically and emotionally very taxing, as those of us who have logged 200,000 flight miles or more in a year can tell you. And keeping the group coordinated and productive – a group of people of different cultures, different time-zones, and different mother tongues – can be a monumental task.

Is there a way to survive and thrive in this kind of job while maintaining a reasonably normal personal life? Here are seven tips that may help.

1. Keep your travel time to no more than 25%. As the leader of a group, of course it is important to meet each key person face-to-face at least once per year; but you don’t have to be there in person every month. From one personal meeting, they will know your mannerisms and what it feels like to shake your hand – the other senses can be conveyed very well with video conferencing, web conferencing and phone calls. Programs like Skype, Zoom.US, Webex, and GoToMeeting allow you and your team to see each other on high-definition video and hear each other’s voices clearly while sharing a whiteboard, slides or other applications. (For tips on leading a remote meeting, read this blog.) The general rule is: travel less and meet on-line more often. If you sleep more nights in airplane seats and hotel beds than in your own bed, then you are traveling too much.

2. Satellite your own office. If your primary office is collocated with one of your reporting groups, then that group has a big advantage over the others. Everyone else will feel “remote” and out of the mainstream. Your local colleagues can see you at work, drop-in to your office for a chat and get tips from your body language that are not available to any of your other workers. Don’t underestimate the feeling of being a second-class citizen shared by those who are not residing at your location. You can mitigate this problem by having an office that is not collocated with any of your groups. It could be an office in your home or perhaps a rented office somewhere else. You can then set up an electronic “open door” policy or office hours available to anyone in your groups worldwide by using the telephone or Skype or other chat software. Of course you may have to vary your work hours and “open door” times to account for people in different time zones. Try not to be available to local groups much more than you would for your more remote sites. Again the general rule is to try to be available to every person reporting to you on an equal footing. 

3. Paint the vision and set the objectives, but don’t micromanage. Micromanagement doesn’t usually work well even in a collocated situation, and it really falls down in a global environment. Your most important job as a leader is to articulate the objectives of your group and paint a picture of the future if these objectives are met successfully. Let the leaders below you figure out how they are going to meet these objectives.

4. Build a NEW culture of accountability. The key word here is “new”. Trying to force the values and cultural norms of one company within one national culture upon a group with possibly a completely different culture usually produces poor results. Most company mergers fail to meet expectations, and the failure is usually due to mismatched cultures and poor integration. It is a very good investment of time and energy to bring the whole group together (virtually, at least) in order to discuss and develop the new group culture; including group values, standards of business conduct, operating style, meeting rules and formal vs. informal agreements. In particular, you should discuss expectations of collective and individual accountability.

5. Encourage cross-geographic collaboration. Remote groups tend to isolate themselves due to comfort with their local friends and culture and perceived communication barriers with other groups. For optimum performance, you need to break down these barriers and recognize and reward cross-group collaboration. Breaking the project into independent, isolated chunks of work for the various groups is expedient, but it does not generally produce the optimum results. Integrating the perspectives of diverse people produces the best solutions.

6. Make metrics simple and visible.  Develop a small set of simple metrics of success for your global group to track. These numbers should include a combination of results, predictive metrics and trend charts. Put the updated metrics on-line for every team member to follow, along with your weekly assessment of the state of the business.

7. Recognize and reward high performance. Single-out high-performance individuals and sub-teams for special recognition and rewards.  Some cultures are averse to such non-egalitarian behavior, but it should be a part of your new group culture. The top performers always contribute much more than their share of success to any business, and they should have the incentives to continue to do so.

Leading a global team is never easy, but following these tips will enhance the performance and value of your team and leave you the time and energy to live a normal life.

5 comments

  • Comment Link Scott Elliott Friday, 08 February 2013 20:18 posted by Scott Elliott

    Thanks for the questions Larry, and great points.

    Regarding the boss who demands that you reside at the home office - there is not much you can do except possibly spend one or more days per week at an independent site.

    As to time zones, my own practice has been to try to pick times that are not too far out of working/waking hours for everyone, then rotate those times so that the parties take turns suffering the inconvenient time. Also, each location should have at least on "private" workstation or video conferencing room for those confidential meetings.

    Your third point is a good one. It is expedient to parse the project into independent chunks, and should be done for teams that are hired for only one program (like an outsourced design contractor), but for more continuous operation or for teams that will work together on multiple programs, learning to collaborate closely on integrated projects is more productive in the long run.

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  • Comment Link Larry Pendergrass Friday, 08 February 2013 18:57 posted by Larry Pendergrass

    My third question: Concerning #5, “encourage cross-geographic collaboration”… I agree that diverse opinions will help with the overall solution. But I struggle with your suggestion that you should not break the project into isolated blocks for different geographies, but rather (if I understand you) work to integrate the project and the people by your choices of global assignments. I have always chosen to separate the project with the least risk to re-integration, and that means isolated chunks. I understand how your collaboration idea would help teamwork. But aren’t you trading teamwork risk for adding greater risk to the project? Don’t you usually want to partition a project where the risks are not in the interfaces?

    Thanks Scott.

    Larry P.

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  • Comment Link Larry Pendergrass Friday, 08 February 2013 18:57 posted by Larry Pendergrass

    My second question: Also concerning #2… Leveling the playing field is also tough for global meetings. Having a room full of people at the “home office” and solo individuals scattered around the world calling in can unwittingly separate the teams into those in a big room, and those who are not. So putting everyone at their desk on a headset helps this problem. But what do you do to level the playing field for time zones? And what would you suggest for an all-manager meeting when the subjects can be confidential?

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  • Comment Link Larry Pendergrass Friday, 08 February 2013 18:56 posted by Larry Pendergrass

    Great article Scott. I too have felt the personal impact of overwork and of strained teamwork as a result of globally distributed teams. The idea of leveling the playing field by “remoting” your own office is a great one. Another benefit you hadn’t mentioned: With this practice, when you visit even the “home office” team face-to-face, the tendency will be to make the time count, spending quality face time instead of just being on site but in meetings all day or at your desk answering email. You might even do more managing by wandering around! A good thing.

    I have 3 questions, and will have to put them in 3 different comments. My first one: Concerning #2, “satellite your own office”… How do you answer the CEO who resides at headquarters and wants you to be there too just in case he or she wants to talk with you at any moment? And what about your peers (perhaps the head of marketing or operations) who are already at headquarters and also need to meet with you regularly?

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  • Comment Link Steph P. Friday, 08 February 2013 02:49 posted by Steph P.

    Great post Scott. For tip #1, it's also helpful to have people travel to you once or twice a year. My counterparts overseas were always delighted to get a trip to the US and it was a great way for them to meet not only with me but with others in the company.

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