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Are you Leading or Managing your Long-Distance Team? Part 1

This blog is the first of a two-part series discussing the unique challenges to distance leadership.

Once I was asked to lead three separate teams within the same division of a growing company. It was one of the most difficult challenges of my career, not because of the number of people, but because the teams were based in three uniquely different countries.

Historically, there was a lot of mistrust and tension between the groups, stemming from competition for resources, distrust between group managers, a lack of interoffice communication, and different operating cultures.

Each group had its own operating methods, policies, procedures, tools and resources. Group members gathered and disseminated information within their personal networks in their host country, rather than among the other divisions of the company.

Long distance leadership certainly has a unique set of challenges, but in today’s evolving world, this skill is becoming increasingly important. Even good leaders at home can become mere managers of their distance teams. My experience was very rewarding and taught me some valuable lessons. Here are the first two of the six lessons of leading distance teams.

1. Don’t fill up your plate

You will be visiting your distance offices periodically. Managers are trained to maximize value and efficiency in all company activities. While trying to be “cost-effective,” touring managers often cram every minute of their agenda with meetings, presentations, and discussions. This is a common mistake.

Your staff watches you very carefully, especially when they rarely see you. When you fill up your plate, two things happen. First, you commit yourself to tasks such as project reviews, budgeting, personnel reviews…in other words, administrative stuff, which is managing not leading.

Second, people who book every minute of their time may achieve short-term efficiencies, but they often struggle to achieve long-term team goals. We have all been involved in a Royal Tour. The visiting dignitary does not get the opportunity to see how people work or to dig deep into problems. Your local manager can plan and prepare everything, right down to the team’s script, which accentuates the positive and glosses over troubles. Hiding anything for a couple of days during a Royal Tour is easy.

Think about it. When the Queen visits, the hosts spend time picking up refuse and removing homeless people from the streets. Police crack down on crime, and graffiti is removed. Does the Monarch get a real picture of the local life, or a glossy overly optimistic view of the community? Does a visiting leader get the whole story?

Consider filling up one-third to half of your agenda. Undoubtedly, you will have your own day-to-day tasks to do right there in the local office. Your team can sugar-coat or even hide problems for a couple of days, but then they must return to their routines, and you get the chance to see how things really work.

This allows you to be accessible to employees and available to discuss those issues that are important to them, helping you get a better feel for the business environment.

2. Be explicit with Vision, Mission, and Values

Remote offices often feel like outposts, and not part of the bigger corporate picture. Unless the bulk of your team came from the mother ship, there may not be a solid connection to the vision, mission and values. Employee loyalties may lie within their local extra-company peer network, leaving their intra-company network under-developed.

You are the single point of contact between the corporate ship and the local office. You must breathe life into the company’s vision, mission and values and be explicit in explaining how the local office fits into that picture. Leaders often struggle to bring these notions down to a tangible achievable goal. However, you must succeed if you want your local employees to re-align their priorities and loyalties. Delivering this message without passion will be deadly. Remember, you’re under a massive magnifying glass.

Guest blogger: Roger Lemaire, P.Geo., P.Eng., MBA and CEO, URU Metals, Toronto Ontario.

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Inscape Consulting Group
Greg Nichvalodoff, BSc. BM (Honors), MBA, PCC, CMC
Office: 604.943.0800
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