So you’ve got a remote boss. Tricky…

We live in a super connected world where organizations span across geographies and cultures. Every day in the office we meet colleagues, partners and 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 reporting to a remote manager. How do you make the most of such arrangement? How do you ensure you are really connected and you get job done? How do you ensure your boss understand what you are doing and can appreciate your efforts? In “So you’ve got a remote team. Tricky…” series of articles (Part I., Part II., Part III.) I talked about how to manage remote teams, and today I will look at the same problem from the other side – how to be managed remotely. It should be no surprise that it all boils down to good communication. What do you communicate about?

Keep him in the loop

If someone sits at the other side of the world it is obvious that he or she cannot really follow what you doing on daily basis. Your boss just cannot stop by couple of times a day to ask how you doing and help you out. You need to make sure that he gets the necessary information that he would have access to when sitting in the same location and provides the necessary guidance. What usually worked for me was to have an agreement with my boss (or my team when I’m in the manager role) that I will keep him in the loop on anything that is big enough that he might be interested in it, he may need or he may be asked about by other people. And the mantra here is “more is better than less”. I would keep him in cc: of my emails if the topic could be of interest to him and at the same time I make it pretty clear that I don’t really expect him to read it. The idea is that he will have the information available on short notice when he needs it even if it is in the middle of my night. This way he can also praise, provide feedback, and all that without the burden of micromanaging.

I used to have this agreement with my first manager at Siemens. I would keep him in cc: of the emails that could be relevant to him but he wouldn’t read it unless I flagged the email as important. For the rest, we would meet once a week and use his unread emails from me as a guideline of what has happened during the week and talk about it and answer questions. The advantage for him was that at any point he would have easy access to data when asked for it by his managers or business partners. Similar approach would be to use some collaboration website and keep the data there, though that means more conscious effort.

Ask for clarifications

When you get a task make sure you understand it. The most performance issues in global teams come from the fact that the goals and expectations are either not set at all or are set too vaguely and both parties have a bit different understanding of what the outcome should be. So when you get a task from your boss you can do two things to ensure you really got it right. First, ask “Why?” As I wrote in “What problem are you trying to solve?” by asking this question you will understand what is the motivation behind the task, what is the big picture and it helps tremendously to set the framework so the chances are that you will not do something that would go against it. Secondly, try to paraphrase how you understand the task. If you repeat the description of the task in your own works it will help you understand what is requested and at the same time it gives your boss a chance to react in case you are off the mark. If the task is critical enough you may even give your boss a high-level outline of what your steps will be. The idea here is not to seek permission but to ensure you understand the objectives.

Remind him that you exist

Out of sight, out of mind. If you are in a remote location and your boss don’t see you every day in your cubicle chances are you are not on top of his mind and you simply need to remind him that you exist. Even though it should be primarily his job to ensure he stays connected with his team you can always help him to achieve it. Don’t wait for your boss to setup regular meetings, just push yourself to his calendar. Don’t wait for him to ask questions, just pro-actively keep him informed. And there is nothing wrong with reminding him some of your successes in case he may not see them. Have you got kudos from your customer? Just forward it to your boss as FYI (For Your Information).

Ask for what you need

Never assumes that your boss knows what you need. Be very clear on what tools, budget or support you need to achieve your goals. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you don’t understand something or if you need help with getting cooperation from people in the team or other departments. Your boss has better leverage and will be able to help you with things that would otherwise seem difficult or impossible.

Educate on your culture

The chances are that in global teams your boss comes from different country, has different cultural and educational background and may not always understand how things work at your site. It is your responsibility to help him understand that. You should always strive to give him a glimpse into how are his comments, decisions and actions seen in your culture. Just make sure you do it the right way. Saying “this will never work in my country,” is definitely not the way to go about it. It is not constructive, it is not helpful. You should formulate your feedback in a way that will help to provide understanding of what the natural consequences might be. If you have examples from the past that would illustrate what you mean then even better. For example, in Czech culture there is this negative notion that bigger guys/countries would “decide things about us, without us.” It is an important cultural aspect that is good to be shared with your boss and explain that if the decision about the team will be done without getting them involved the natural consequence is that it will not be accepted and people will spent weeks being distracted by complaining about it.

Understand his perspective

Always try to understand why he is doing what he is doing. Why would he say such a thing? Why would he believe something? Why would he act this way? Try to understand the “why” and then act appropriately. And stay positive. If you want to have a healthy relationship and work with your boss as a team it is important to have the mindset that anything he does comes from a sincere believe that it is the best thing to do for everyone involved. You should always assume that there is a positive motivation behind his behavior. If you keep this mindset it will help you to understand why he acts in a certain way and it can help you to realize how you can help and what information you should communicate.

Help him achieve his objectives

If you understand his perspective you should be also able to provide him help to achieve his goals. Yes, your boss is here to help you achieve your objectives but if you understand what his goals are and align with them chances are it will help you both to perform at higher level. The natural consequences of this relationship are that both of you over-achieve, your work well together, both of you get more opportunities for growth and have a good mutually beneficial relationship.

Provide feedback

It is always difficult thing to provide feedback to your superior but nevertheless you should strive to build such a relationship that you can do it. And again, this is primarily responsibility of your boss since he acts from the side of power but you can always do at least something to help him create such environment. If your boss feels you are loyal, you care not just for yourself but also for the company and him, chances are he will be willing to listen and receive well intentioned and well formulated feedback.

Twitter type summary: “Any relationship is a two way street. Don’t just sit and wait for your boss to walk to you, but go and meet him in the middle.”

What are your tips and tricks when working with a remote manager? How do you ensure you have what you need to do your job and that you are successful?

Let the team win

Had you ever struggled with motivating your team and creating a sense of ownership for a brand new initiative that you came up with? Did you feel like you have to explain everything in a big detail and the team still doesn’t get it and the project doesn’t progress as you wanted? What was happening?

Your ego may be at fault here. You are pushing too hard, you want to show that you have answers to all the questions and dictate to the team what and how they should do.

So how do you spur an action and create a sense of ownership by the team for an idea that you came up with? There are several ways how to approach this problem and it really depends on personalities in your team.

Plant the idea

Imagine this situation. You just spent month thinking about an improvement of some process your team is using. You analyzed lots of data, talked with several people, and drafted a proposal for discussion with your boss. You then talked to him and he didn’t seem to be particularly impressed. But he said he will think about it. Two weeks later there is a meeting your boss has with all his subordinates and he introduces the idea and strongly pushes for implementation. He even invited people from other departments to get the necessary support. Not once on that meeting is mentioned your name. You feel disappointed, maybe a bit angry. But why? Is it more important to you getting the credit or implementing the idea? Your boss just took ownership of the idea, will push it forward and he will have better chance of succeeding than you would have. You should feel proud that something you came up with will be now implemented. These things happen and you should always look at it from the perspective whether things got done and not who takes credit.

Give credit

Let go of your ego. When someone takes ownership of your idea the best thing you can do it to provide him any support he needs. Just be careful not to add “I had the same idea a year ago” as it would just kill the sense of ownership by the team on the spot.

Let me give you an example each of us encounters all the time. A member of your team comes to you. He is smiling, full of enthusiasm and says “I have a great news for you. We just finished the project two days sooner than expected.” And your answer? “Yes, I know.” Such a let down! Why do you need to show off? You just took something away from the person who came with the message and you missed a great opportunity to increase the motivation of the team. The correct answer is “That is great! You guys did an incredible job.” Who cares that you already knew about it?

Play Devil’s advocate

What does it mean? Essentially arguing points against your idea and thus not letting others to use them. It has the advantage that it pushes the team or your opposing person to argue for your idea thus making it their own.

This technique is a bit manipulative and manipulation as a general rule shouldn’t be part of leader’s repertoire. To make it more transparent you may want to make it clear to the team what you are actually doing here. When the discussion gets going you can make a statement like this “Guys I really like the idea but let me play Devil’s advocate here. I see this or that problem with it. How do you want to resolve it?” That way you stimulate the discussion, letting the team to find the solution and take the ownership while not lying to them.

Show vision, not details

Another way is to provide just a high-level vision, a basic outline of the idea but let the team figure out all the details. Even though you may have already pretty good feel about how it should be implemented just keep it to yourself. If you share all the details then you won’t give opportunity to others to take the idea as their own and you won’t be able to create a sense of ownership. The team may still do it but without passion and they will do it just because you are the boss and not because the success of the initiative matters to them.

All in all it is always about giving chance to others to contribute and do things their own way without you pushing “the only correct” solution all the time. And yes, in the grand scheme of things you are responsible for the outcomes of your team’s work so when things go wrong you need to be able to step up and take ownership. In the times of crisis stand by your team and work together to get it resolved and make sure you own the failure and take the consequences. The team needs to understand what was wrong, get the feedback, learn from it, but to the outside world you are the one to take the blame.

Twitter type summary: “Leader is visible to the world in the times of crisis. When there is a credit to be taken he stands in the shadows.”

What is your experience with marshaling a team to support your idea? Do you dwell on who came up with it or do you focus more on the actual execution and results?