Mentoring by telling stories

One of the most powerful ways to get people to do something new and great is to share stories. Storytelling is art old thousands of years and it can work miracles if done right. As Steve Denning points out in his work “The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling” different types of stories can be used in different situations to achieve the desired results. There are stories to rally people, to share information, to transmit values, to communicate who you are or to dissolve gossip. One of the most important tasks of any leader is to spark action and lead the team to achieve a specific goal and to provide mentoring along the way.

So how do you do that? You need to provide some guidance but at the same time you don’t want to give orders and tell the team how exactly to do it. Why not? Check this post “Don’t manage. Empower!”. The best way to do it is to give suggestions in the form of stories. It may start something like this: “Let me tell you a story. It has happened when I was leading a team of developers in Siemens in 2007 and may not be completely relevant or usable in your situation but it may give you some ideas or a different perspective.” If you do this, the employee cannot really take what you just told them and match it exactly to current situation but it can open their eyes to possibilities. What are the advantages of this approach? Well, you are not telling the person what to do, you are just telling stories and opening their minds. It is much easier for that person to go and do it their own way because as you will point out the story may not be relevant. It will also create a learning opportunity for employee and help them grow by looking at things from different perspective. It will make them think.

A good story that will spark action and that will provide the necessary mentoring to the team must follow couple of basic principles. The story should be:

  • Authentic – truly powerful story is based on truth. If you want the story to have the right impact you should provide couple of details like when and where it happens so it is easy to verify. You will be also able to tell such a story with ease and conviction as you just relate the facts as they happened and don’t need to fabricate new ones.
  • Short – the story needs to be short and sweet. If you want to use stories as a regular tool in your leadership toolbox for daily use you need to keep it to one or two minutes long and not longer.
  • Focused – don’t get distracted. It should be organized in such a way that it is easy to follow and should get to the point fast. It has to be immediately visible why you tell the story and what the significance is.
  • Positive – for a story that should spark some action it is important to show a positive side of that action, a happy ending. If it is just to warn and provide an example of mistake feel free to use something negative but still make sure the overall impact is positive as it will causes the person to want to follow the advice included in the message.
  • Relevant – it has to be relevant to the situation at hand. The audience needs to immediately understand why you are telling it and how to apply it in the present situation. Otherwise they will just get bored and won’t listen to the message.

The story should be somehow relevant but ideally it shouldn’t be exact match, because then it would be seen not as a story or suggestion but as an order. One thing I would like to point out at this stage is that this is not pure coaching. It is more a mentoring in a sense that you share your experience with your employee. Also for this to work long-term you must never ever say to the employee after they didn’t follow your advice and failed: “I told you so. You should do it the way I described.” If you say something like this it will translate to: “Next time I give you story of my life, you better listen and do exactly what I would do in your situation.” And this is not environment you want to create. This is not environment where people will feel free to step up, make their own decisions, feel the sense of ownership, get things done… and yes, from time to time fail.

Twitter type summary: “Telling stories is a powerful way to provide mentoring. Just make the story authentic, short, focused, positive and relevant.”

Do you tell stories? How do you approach it? What are the pros and cons of this approach to management?

So you’ve got a remote team. Tricky… part III.

Over the last two weeks I gave you an idea of what questions to ask when building a global organization (So you’ve got a remote team. Tricky… part I.) and how the right mindset is the key to that effort (So you’ve got a remote team. Tricky… part II.). Today I will walk you through some of the best practices with respect to communication and processes.


Over-communicate – get used to communicating much more than you would like. It is important to share information, share it again and then share it some more. Get used to repeating stuff, get used to getting acknowledgement and let others tell you back what they heard.

Don’t make any assumptions – it is so easy to assume that the other party has access to particular information or that they understood what you said the way you intended. Always state even the most obvious. Keep in mind that what is obvious to you may not be obvious to someone with different educational or cultural background.

Look for clues – people are different and not everyone will always tell you things the way you would understand or hear. So keep looking for clues that may indicate that the other person is trying to send some important message across.

Make your expectations clear – the more details you provide the better. And by that I don’t mean micromanaging, but just stating the expectations about the final outcome in enough detail so it is difficult to misunderstand.

Refrain from long sentences and slang – try to write and speak in simple English using as little slang and colloquialism as possible since the remote team may not get the references or guess the correct meaning. The worst miscommunication happens when you say something and the remote team believes they got the message, but they didn’t or got it wrong.

Be careful with jokes – as they may not translate well to different cultures and can be offensive. This also applies to making references to things or sayings popular in your culture as the remote team will not get the point and will feel excluded.

Make it a habit to send to the team a daily update – it will help to emphasize key events or decisions that happened during your day. Nothing fancy just to make sure they are in the loop on priorities and decisions that may impact them.

Ask the team to do the same – to send you a short daily update on what achievements they made, what issues there are facing and what they plan to do tomorrow to ensure alignment of priorities.

Write as much as possible – written communication is often needed when working with team members who are not native English speakers. They may be more comfortable expressing their thoughts through email or instant messaging than talking on video. Ideally combine both.

Don’t do email ping pong – as it rarely helps to clarify the message. If you get the feeling after one email exchange that the message is still not clear than pick up the phone and talk to the person to clarify the details and then again follow with key points in writing.

Send short notes – after phone calls or video meetings just to be on the safe side and summarize key points, decisions and action items.


Hold regular synchronization meetings – only by maintaining constant contact with your remote team will you ensure that the information flows freely and both sides have enough opportunities to share thoughts.

Document & follow up – always put key points in writing and share with your team. That way you provide additional check-point for the team members to raise their eyebrows (and hopefully voices) in case they understood it differently.

Set some basic team rules – make sure at the very beginning that you explain your expectations and management style to the team so they are not offended by something you do.

Take monthly or quarterly trips – they will help to build trust. Of course that assumes you have budget to spare. Some level of face-time is needed especially at the beginning when you are getting to know each other.

Use video chat – as much as possible to simulate the face to face experience and have the advantage of reading facial expression. Though keep in mind that in different cultures these expressions may mean different things.

Make it a point – to send a short message with key points to the remote team even when you have an informal discussion with the local team members to simulate the water cooler experience.

Hold weekly one on one meetings – as they play a key role in staying in touch on personal level and give you opportunity to bond with the remote person, work on his development, provide feedback and hopefully also receive some.

We live in the age of technologies so use them. There is a phone, instant messengers, e-mail, skype, facebook, collaboration portals and tools, video conferencing and much more so don’t be afraid to adopt new technologies to help you out. But remember the technology will not solve your problems for you. It is still your job as a leader to set the processes, communicate, make the effort and lead by example to be able to build a great global organization.

Twitter type summary: “Over-communicating and stating the obvious without making any assumption is a key to building a successful global team.”

What are your best practices or trips and tricks when managing remote teams? What have you tried and failed? What were the lessons learned?

You’ve got the right guy… in the wrong job

It happens all the time. You hire the best and the brightest, you provide them the means to do a great job, to learn and to grow. Then the day comes you feel like your best individual contributor deserves a promotion. He has done such a great job in his current role, he is smart, dedicated and you feel he has a great potential so you promote him to a manager. That is when things go wrong, somehow he struggles in his new role, people in the team still respect him for his technical skills and ability to get things done, but they don’t respect him as a leader, they don’t follow him. He still feels like he needs to keep doing the work of individual contributor, creates a rift in the team, the motivation in the team is deteriorating and you struggle with retention. What went wrong?

It happens all the time. You take a great individual contributor, rip him out of his ideal job where he really contributes and put him to a role that is not suitable for him, that doesn’t bring him joy and that makes him fail… I used to work for a big global organization with half a million people worldwide. We had a very good training program for new managers, we had a detail development plans and everyone had a clear career path to follow. People were promoted based on the merit, on their contributions and sometimes on their tenure with the company. There was this joke going around that we promote people as long as they are able to handle the job. When they get to a position that is above their abilities their promotions stop. Unfortunately this eventually leads to organization where all the roles are filled by people who cannot handle them.

So what is the alternative? You don’t promote people based on how they are doing in their current job, but rather based on their abilities to handle the job that needs filling. So instead of promoting the best developer to development manager role you promote the one whose contributions in developer role were not particularly noteworthy but who has a great ability to communicate and is able to organize others for a common goal. As I wrote in The Broken Ladder there are different ways to look at career and you can have a very fulfilling professional life without moving up the ladder. You essentially want to find a sweet spot for everyone in your team and then make him work miracles.

What are the advantages of the sweet spot concept? What are the advantages for the organization, you as a leader and individual employees?

Everyone does what they are good at

You let everyone excel in what they are good at. You maximize their potential by focusing on their strengths and that brings maximal value for the company. If someone is a stellar developer, accountant or sales person why to make him a mediocre manager? You organization then suffers big loss on the individual contributor side that is difficult to fill and what you get back is a manager that will have a negative impact on the rest of the team thus lowering the productivity of everyone else.

Everyone does what makes them happy

It is all about passion. If you do job or tasks you are passionate about you feel great deal of personal satisfaction and you are happy. Having people in the right roles, where they bring the best of themselves allows them to be super successful and that brings a great deal of satisfaction with their jobs and happiness to their lives. If you love having things under control, you want to understand everything in the smallest detail and you love getting things done with your own hands and that is what makes you happy then being in a managerial position where you are required to work through other people will make your life pretty miserable. Why would you want that?

People can still grow

The danger of having everyone in their sweet spot is that they get really comfortable and will not strive for more. That mindset would be very dangerous for the organization as it would stifle future growth. So even when you give everyone a chance to be in their sweet spot you still need to challenge them, step by step increase the scope of their work so they learn more, expand their skill set and essentially expand their sweet spot to bigger and bigger role.

Twitter type summary: “Going for the sweet spot is the best strategy for building a high-performing organization where people do what they are passionate about.”

How do you promote people in your organization? What are the criteria you use to get people into management roles?

So you’ve got a remote team. Tricky… part II.

Last week in article So you’ve got a remote team. Tricky… part I. I outlined some of the questions you should be asking yourself when managing remote teams. At the end I identified three areas of focus: mindset, communication and processes. Let us now focus on what I call the proper mindset when managing remotely. I will share with you some of the ideas I always found helpful. As with any other advice it is up to you to consider whether they are something that might work for your situation and that you want to use.

Analyze any issues – to understand what went wrong, why and how to prevent it in the future. This doesn’t mean looking for someone to blame but to learn from past mistakes. Always start with you and find out what you can do differently and how you should change your approach before you start asking the remote team to change theirs.

Find a local mentor – who can help you understand the team, culture, customs, who will be able to provide you feedback and give you insider perspective on how the team works. You should be pretty open about this with the rest of the team so they don’t feel like there is a spy in their midst. In fact they may use this person to give you feedback that they are not comfortable giving you by themselves.

Utilize the strengths – of the team you’ve got. There might be some cultural aspects, habits and ways of working that you may use to your advantage rather than try to change it by force. Some cultures hate uncertainty and prefer to have rules and guidelines for everything, while other cultures hate following rules and prefer to have more freedom in the way how to approach a problem. So use these differences.

Understand – that in some cultures (in fact in most cultures in Europe and Asia) it is your responsibility as a manager to recognize the good job of the team and act accordingly (with promotions, adding more responsibilities, etc.). In other cultures it is more common for a person to step up and promote himself. Always keep in mind that there is no right or wrong approach, they are just different and you as a manager must adapt.

Make a conscious effort – to understand the local culture, understand the history, the present, ask your remote team about their culture but don’t try to act like you already know everything and refrain from sliding back to cultural stereotypes and misconceptions.

Don’t assume anything – especially that people are always open with you. Realize that trust does not come automatically with the title and it needs to be earned. At the same time be aware that in some cultures the title will build a wall between you and your team and your ability to get negative feedback is very limited.

Be willing to change – working habits and always try to see things from the other person’s perspective. For example, “Would I be willing to do this if I were in his or her shoes?” “How would I feel if my boss who is 10 hours away asked me to stay till midnight on Friday to have a meeting?” At the same time don’t assume you are able to predict how the other person feels or would act.

Give your remote team meaningful work – and a real responsibility otherwise they will never build a sense of ownership and they will never give you their best performance. This is a key to really successful global organization. Your willingness to relinquish some of the control and empower the remote team is the best thing you can do.

Don’t allow – the local or remote team to get into habit of “us & them” thinking. The moment this starts happening you are on your way to failure as it will gradually build a big gap between the teams and the trust and performance will deteriorate fast.

Don’t be a bottle neck – especially when the remote team works your off hours. Make sure there is someone in the remote team who has the knowledge, ability and authority to make decisions and move things forward while you sleep.

Make it a point – that you hire the same quality of people regardless of the location. They need to get the same level of attention, responsibilities and opportunities to grow. The moment you start giving preferential treatment to the team in your location the whole concept breaks down and you won’t be able to build a high-performing global organization.

These were just thoughts on the mindset you need to build in yourself and your local team. Next week I will focus on the other two aspects of building a global organization and that is communication and global processes. Both of these are building on the premise that you have the right mindset and willingness to give it an extra effort to create a success as a global organization.

Twitter type summary: “Give your remote team meaningful work and real responsibility to build the sense of ownership and to get the best performance.”

What are the other practices that help you manage remote teams? What mindset do you have or do you set in your team?

Toastmasters: a fun way how to improve your leadership and communication skills

There comes a day in a life of any professional when we are asked to give a speech, present our idea, offer an opinion, provide feedback, facilitate a meeting, or show a vision to our teams. In short, we are asked to communicate. How do you improve the basic skill every leader needs? How do you get better at communication? You join and actively participate in Toastmasters!

Fast facts

It all started in 1924 when Ralph C. Smedley held the first meeting of what would eventually become Toastmasters International. Smedley worked as a director of education for YMCA. He observed that many of the young men needed training in the art of public speaking and in presiding over meetings so he decided to help them. The word “toastmaster” refers to a person who proposed the toasts and introduced the speakers at a banquet. Smedley named his group “The Toastmasters Club” to reflect the pleasant, social atmosphere he wanted to create.

Today, Toastmasters International is an educational (nonprofit) organization with mission to teach communication, public speaking and leadership skills. Headquartered in California it has more than 280.000 members in 116 countries.

The official Toastmasters International mission statement: “We empower individuals to become more effective communicators and leaders.”

What are the benefits?

  • The Toastmasters communication and leadership program is a proven way to become better communicator as proved by 280.000 members worldwide.
  • The club meetings are held in a supportive and positive atmosphere. You should have some fun when learning.
  • The feedback you will be regularly getting will improve your skills faster than in any school. The feedback you will be regularly providing will improve your skills as a leader.
  • The experience you gain by getting involved in club functions will improve your leadership.
  • The access to the educational materials and resources on public speaking skills compiled over almost ninety years existence of the organization.

How does it work?

A typical Toastmasters club will have between 20 to 40 people who meet on regular basis, most often several times a month for 1 to 2 hours. The meeting is sort of social gathering but with strict rules and given agenda. The limited number of participants in each club ensures friendly atmosphere and opportunity for each member to regularly speak and get involved in various leadership activities.

Agenda for the meeting will look like this:

  • Introduction – introduction into the meeting, explanation of what Toastmasters are to new members and guests. Don’t be late for your first meeting so you won’t miss this part.
  • Prepared speeches based on projects from Toastmasters manuals – there are 10 projects (meaning 10 speeches) in the basic communication manual covering various aspect of public speaking such as body language, voice variety, organization of the speech or making the point. Furthermore there are 15 manuals to go through so you have enough learning materials for years.
  • Table topics (impromptu speeches) – one to two minutes long speeches that will be done without prior preparation on a variety of topics. By participating in this portion you will learn to collect your thoughts and organize a short speech “on the spot” – improvise.
  • Evaluations – the key to the learning process. Everything in the meeting is being evaluated. There is a constant stream of feedback coming to all the speakers so they can learn and improve. The evaluations are meant to help so they are given in a constructive and helpful manner.

Each new member of Toastmasters will receive manuals and resources about how to become a better speaker and a more confident leader. She will also have access to additional resources and variety of books dealing with various topics related to communication and public speaking.

Still undecided?

Think about some of these statements describing the Toastmasters program:

  • It is a self-paced program
  • You learn critical thinking
  • You learn flexibility
  • You learn to give and provide feedback
  • You learn to overcome your fears of public speaking
  • You learn to listen
  • You learn time management
  • You get confidence
  • You meet new people and make friends
  • You will have fun

How to join?

Just go to the Toastmasters International website, find the clubs that are near your location and visit one of the meetings as a guest. The meetings are geared towards welcoming new members so you won’t intrude, in fact you will be expected. When you see for yourself the value such club meetings bring talk to the club officers and sign up!

Twitter type summary: “Toastmasters International gives you a chance to learn communication and leadership skills while having fun.”

Disclosure: as of this year I’m a member of Fort Bonifacio Toastmasters club in Manila/Philippines and starting July 2013 also a club officer (VP of Education) responsible for organizing regular meetings and educating members and potential members on the value of Toastmasters.

So you’ve got a remote team. Tricky… part I.

We live in a super connected world where organizations span across geographies and cultures. Every day in the office we meet colleagues, partners, customers using technologies such a phone, email, video conferencing and we must learn how to work with them even if not sitting face to face. One of the most challenging situations is having responsibility for a remote team. How do you make the most of such arrangement? How do you ensure your team performs to the best of their abilities? How do you truly lead? How do you ensure your visibility to the team so they are able to follow you?

For the sake of simplicity let me draw a typical scenario that we will follow thought this article. Imagine you are a manager of twenty people divided into four teams of five. One team sits in your location, the rest sits offshore eight hours away. Now, let us go through some of the most important and often overlooked aspects of remote management.

Out of sight, out of mind

This is the most common issue you can see when people work with global teams. Managing remote team will cost you more conscious effort than managing locally. It is very easy to forget that you have remote team members and if you are not careful you can create a serious problem for yourself and your team. When you ask for information do you ask the person who is the most qualified to give you the answer or do you ask the person who sits in the cubicle next to you? When you think about organizational structure or promotions do you understand the strengths of the people in remote location or do you just promote people sitting next to you as you have detail visibility into what they are doing so it feels like they are the right candidates for the job? When you think about who to use for a new assignment or project, do you ask for volunteers in the remote team or will you just give it to guy in your office as you remember that last week he told you at lunch he might be interested in it?

Missing water cooler

In most organizations lots of ideas and even decisions come from informal discussions “around water cooler”. Obviously, if you have part of the team remote they won’t be able to be part of the discussion unless you make it a point to give them at least a chance. So when you go for lunch with your local team how do you ensure that the ideas you discussed are shared with the remote team? When you share information with a team member you just met in the hallway how do you ensure it gets also to the guys sitting across the ocean? How do you ensure that there is enough interaction also at the social level so even if distributed it still feels like having one team?

We are all different

People are different. Even in your local team you may need to change a bit your management style when dealing with different people and different personalities and the same applies when working globally. What makes it even more challenging is that the chances are that aside of individual personalities you will have to deal with subtle or not so subtle cultural differences. How do you get open and honest feedback from the remote team? How do you ensure that you understand what “yes” actually means? Curiously enough it can mean different things in different cultures. How do you ensure people ask questions and come for clarifications? How do you ensure that when you speak with the remote team that doesn’t have English as their native language that they really understand what you are saying?

There are many more things you need to be aware of and focus on when working with remote teams but the ones I outlined are the most critical. The goal of the first part of this article was to make you think. So think and keep asking these questions to yourself in your everyday work. Make sure you ask these questions yourself every time you make a decision or share information. And now let me give you some ideas on how to answer these questions. I will introduce the basic concepts and get into more details next week…

What can you do to remove the barriers coming from the global setup?

Mindset – it is all about the way you think about your organization. I assume there is a good reason why you have a global team so always keep reminding yourself what is the goal you are trying to achieve. Do you look at your oversees workers as at cheap labor or do you want to create organization that is scalable, that gives you ability to tap vast talent pool across several continents, that gives you a chance to use strengths of different cultures, that gives you ability to be closer to your customers and that gives your team the satisfaction of working with and learning from people with different educational and cultural background?

Communication – you need to over communicate. Get into a habit of sharing as much information as possible in as many different ways as possible. Never assume anything, always ask for verification, put special focus on the social aspect of building the team, ensure you treat people equally and you provide equal opportunities to people regardless where they sit.

Processes – tweak the processes within your organization in such a way that they work even across distances. Do you hold meetings in the afternoon when your remote team already sleeps? Well, change it so they can participate. Again these things will take some effort and will be painful at the beginning but will pay dividends in long-term.

Twitter type summary: “Leading remote teams requires more conscious effort than managing locally as you need to keep reminding yourself of their existence.”

What are the questions one should keep asking to understand the art of managing remote teams?

So you’ve got a new employee. Now what?

You and your team worked really hard to find, interview and hire the right people to the company. Now comes the first day and bunch of newbies shows up. What do you do? What processes do you have in place to help your new team members? How big role does HR department plays, how big role your team and you? For a leader ability to successfully on-board and integrate new members is a key to long-term stability of the team.

Have a plan

Even before the new employee starts you need to have a plan. You should be clear on how the first month of his should look like. Specifically think about the first day, the first week and the rest of the first month. Write it down and share it with all people who will be involved in the on-boarding and also with the new employee so she knows what to expect.

Give it a priority

The first impression matters. It is important that you make the first day of the new employee as memorable (in a positive way) as possible. Make sure that all the systems and documents are ready. Make sure that people who will be involved in the on-boarding knows what their role is. Starting with receptionist, over HR, IT, the team and you provide your best. For this day there is nothing of higher priority than to start on the right foot.

Show that you care

You are the key. You, as a manager and as a leader need to show that you care. You need to spend time with the new employee the very first day. You should welcome her, give her the overview of the company, the team and her place in the company universe. You should also set expectations for the first month. You may also consider to assign a mentor, but if you do, don’t delegate the responsibility for the on-boarding completely. You are the manager and the leader and you need to be visible and you need to be there if you are needed.

Build excitement and share values

Do some marketing, sell the company. Even though the employee already joined he or she is still in the buyer mode. You should use the opportunity to talk about the future for the employee, the team, the office, the company. Talk about the vision, about values, talk about past successes, talk about the environment and the culture you are trying to create.

Provide feedback

From the very first day you should set the expectations that there will be feedback coming from you on regular basis and that you expect the same coming to you. Make sure that the new employee understands that she is free to ask questions, make observations and provide feedback on things she considers strange, unusual, nonsensical or simply new. Make enough time to provide regular feedback on daily basis for the first couple of weeks and have a more formal meeting once a month for the first couple of months to stay on course and set the new employee to succeed.

It’s not just about work

Socialize. You want to open up to the new employee to get feedback. You want to be able to provide motivating environment and tailor your management style to suit this particular employee and that means you must get to know him or her. Take your new employee for lunch, share laugh, try to know something about them that is not work related and share something about you. Show a human face so to speak to get more accessible and build a good trusting relationship fast.

Twitter type summary: “On-boarding of new employees is a critical task and one of the key responsibilities of every leader. Don’t pass it to others.”

How do you on-board your new team members? How much time do you spend on it yourself and how much do you delegate?