My preferred working style is to have people in the room with me. I simply love the interaction and the engagement. I work best when I can look folks in the eye as I’m speaking with them. Give me a small group of people, a whiteboard and together we’ll have an energetic, insightful brainstorm that produces great ideas.
But here’s my reality: I’m based in Silicon Valley, and I’m responsible for a global team of communications professionals, some who live here in Palo Alto but the others are based in New York City, Seattle, India, England, Singapore and other farflung places.
Related: 'Til We Meet Again
Suffice to say, getting all those people in the same room for regular meetings is a bit of a logistical issue.
So how do I lead a team that I rarely see in person? First, let me acknowledge that it is hard. Perhaps the scarcest resource we all have to manage is our own attention, and it’s a simple truth that if people are not physically near each other, it’s easier for minds to wander. When minds wander, key pieces of the discussion can become less clear and plans can lose momentum.
But hard does not equal impossible if you invest some time to organize things in a smart way.
Here’s what I’ve learned from my experience in managing staff based all over the globe:
1. Build a predictable rhythm. When team members are in different time zones, it’s crucial for leaders to create an environment that is predictable and structured. Everyone must know exactly when and how often they will engage with each other. That creates a good rhythm of doing business and also makes it crystal clear what individuals will be held accountable for.
Set regular video/phone meeting times in advance, with a predictable cadence, because if you don’t book time ahead of time, things just won’t happen at the last minute in long-distance business relationships.
2. Be ready to perform unnatural acts. That sounds bad, right? Bear with me. A global team can meet in person only about once a year, and that’s a very costly exercise. It’s important to meet when feasible, but the challenge is replicating the environment of being together the rest of the time.
The obvious solution is video conferencing. However, it’s impossible to find a time when everyone around the world is awake at the same time. If you optimize for Europe, Asia suffers, and vice versa. With India two-and-a-half hours behind Singapore, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, it gets even harder.
In my previous role running global communications for Microsoft, one of my direct reports came up with an idea for U.S. staffers to pull an all-nighter so that our teams in Asia and Europe could take part in a global workshop at a reasonable hour. It was a little bit of an unnatural act but it worked. It actually created a team moment for those of us in the U.S. with lots of coffee, doughnuts, and high fives at three in the morning.
3. Keep it real. During video calls, I try to act as if my colleagues are in the room with me. I stand up, walk around (the camera system can follow along) and gesture, sometimes invoking Boston Philharmonic conductor Benjamin Zander’s famous “how fascinating!” move. I do everything as I would in an in-person meeting. That helps to create a connection with my team.
I like to personalize meetings by taking a few minutes to find out how team members are doing before diving into business. It’s also helpful if you take a few minutes to do background research on the people in the meeting. Something simple such as referring to individuals by name during a conference call can make a big difference in building team chemistry.
4. Access the best ideas in the world. At Microsoft, I had the pleasure of meeting and working with Adam Pisoni, the co-founder of Yammer. He’s an inspiring guy with a ton of great ideas about the future of business and human connection.
Adam has said that in the coming years, business success will be based less on efficiency improvements and will depend most on how fast leaders can gather ideas and insight from across their organization, no matter where those people are. So, I may be sitting in Palo Alto, but the best idea for a company initiative I’m working on could be from a co-worker in India.
The beauty of technology and the promise of big data is that it can help surface those insights. I love this concept. Nobody has an exclusive on good ideas. If you foster an environment in which any great idea can be surfaced and brought to the attention of decision-makers very rapidly, that is a very, very powerful dynamic.